Between Veneration and Loathing: Loving and Hating Documents
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On a crisp winter afternoon in the heart of a national capital, a contingent of soldiers marches through an honor guard down the steps of a public building, bearing several large wooden cases. The servicemen—those carrying the cases are all men, while the honor guard lining the steps is made up entirely of servicewomen—load these crates onto an armored personnel carrier, and a parade steps off down the city’s main street, led by the marching bands of all the military branches. After about a mile, they halt in front of another building, and their precious cargo is carried inside under the protection of four guards wielding machine guns. Two days later, the nation’s president and chief justice watch as the cases are opened and their contents ceremoniously placed in a shrine of marble and brass so as to permit viewing by an awed public. Every precaution has been taken to protect the contents: with the nation at war, a conbict that threatens to expand to worldwide dimensions, the treasured objects are placed in a bombproof and scientiacally controlled environment. Every night they will be lowered automatically into a secure shelter deep underground. In the great columned hall, the president delivers a patriotic address. “We are engaged here today in a symbolic act,” he says, acclaiming the objects of attention and “enshrining [them] for future ages.” What are those objects? The bodies of heroes from the past? The national gold reserves ? No, they are six brown and wrinkled sheets of parchment, one of them virtually illegible, bearing the borid script of a previous century and a number of signatures , many of them also unreadable.1 Now picture a second scene, far more chaotic, but in its way no less solemn. Unruly crowds have been gathering nightly in the streets of another national capital. The government, once the absolute master of its people, is crumbling but desperate to hold onto power. The tide of popular will has turned against it, however, and, with the signal that a potent foreign ally will no longer sustain the local repressors with invading tanks, the populace is stirred to new courage. Their anger comes to focus on two particular objects. The arst is a massive wall of concrete and barbed wire, built to keep the city’s inhabitants in and the desire for freedom out, after too many citizens had sought escape across the border; eventually the people will dance deaantly on the wall, hammer it down, and take home fragments as grisly souvenirs. The second target of hatred is an unlikely one: a drab oface building in another part of the city. After a few nights of chanting outside, the crowd anally surges into the building, driving the guards away and breaking up the furniture. They make arst for the banal tools of tyranny: plain metal aling cabinets, alled with paper of unassuming appearance . Impulsively, the invaders pull open the drawers, scatter the ales on the boor, and stomp on them or grind them under foot, feeling the emotional satisfaction of abusing these instruments of their former abusers. Very few of the ales are destroyed, however, as the leaders of the crowd move quickly to prevent the burning or shredding of these documents. Indeed, there is evidence that the government agency that had kept the ales had already begun to destroy some of them, fearing that they would be turned against it if the spreading revolution were successful; the movement’s leaders put an immediate stop to this, envisioning a time when the agents of oppression might be brought to justice. Even in the midst 43 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Between Veneration and Loathing Loving and Hating Documents James M. O’Toole ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ of this revolution (a relatively bloodless one), there was great concern for apparently ordinary pieces of paper.2 This second incident is perhaps the more recognizable , since it was carried out before the world only a little over a decade ago. It occurred in Berlin during the revolution of 1989–90, as the German Democratic Republic —such an ironic name!—was collapsing. In addition to its attack on the hated Berlin Wall, the most powerful and, in its day, effective artifact of modern tyranny, the democratic movement targeted the headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, which had for years been compiling minutely detailed surveillance ales on citizens and foreign visitors alike. Intended originally to gather speciac evidence that could be used against individuals , the Stasi’s system of record keeping...