"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think."
-Michel de Montaigne

Friday, March 18, 2011

What the National Archives is Teaching Me About the Disaster in Japan

Given the recent tragedy in Japan, and the impending nuclear crisis that resulted--I find a sense of amorphous History haunting me as I process the records from the Manhattan Project as a volunteer for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Something that's always fascinated me as a writer, student, and just as a human being in general, is the notion of History being omnipresent, or not even really History at all.

What I mean is, when I touched the cold limestone of the Notre Dame in Paris, I thought of plague victims from the 14th century leaning their feverish bodies against the same cool exterior. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte walking down the center aisle in an ermine robe, snatching the crown from Pope Pius VII and placing it on his own head. When I interlace my stubby brown fingers with my husband's long pale white fingers and walk down the streets of Atlanta, I know that perhaps some of the eyes that see this small act of public intimacy also witnessed the protests and death it took to allow it. None of those things that we call 'History' seems very far away from me, from my life as a woman living in 2011.

In my hot little hand yesterday, I held a blue print that showed the nuclear reactor used in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to process the Uranium needed to power the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Later that same day, I went home and scrolled through images, and read in-depth commentary on the Fukushima nuclear reactors threatening to wreak havoc unseen since Chernobyl.

The images of Japanese men and women crying over leveled homes gave me chills. It was like time woke up from a feverish nightmare repeated again with slightly different details:

Hiroshima, 1945
Courtesy of Million Face

Miyagi Prefecture, 2011
Courtesy of Business Insider

Since I began processing this collection, I've gone through hundreds of pieces of paper that might seem mundane to the average person--shipment records, correspondences, charts and tables, blue prints. But the reality of it is this, History (if we can call it that) is made through a conglomeration of individual acts. It so rarely occurs as a result of an unprecedented earthquake, but when it does, we are still tested by the weight of our smallest decisions.

I feel very differently today about nuclear technology and the ramifications of our work as Americans in the Manhattan Project. Not just because of the problems Japan faces now, but certainly in light of them. A sense of remorse. A sense of unease. A sense of we-can-do-better-than-this. There are 50 or so Japanese workers risking life and limb right now to try to exterminate the nuclear reactors that threaten their nation. They, and their countrymen are being tested by their daily acts of service, community, and sacrifice. I am inspired by that, truly, and I feel like we could learn something from that here in America.

If it is in your power, or realm of concern, considering donating to a fund that you trust that is working to provide aid to disaster victims in Japan such as MercyCorp or Unicef.

Let us not be the generation that idly grieves when we might act. Passive sympathy is as inexcusable as active cruelty. At the very least, let us be the generation that respects History as a living thing that we participate in and can change.

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