« Je donne mon avis non comme bon mais comme mien. » — Michel de Montaigne

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2 juin 2012


“We didn’t know.” — Tom Paxton.

Should one be amused or amazed at this piece of news? As Rabbi Marvin Hier is quoted to have said, it is highly unlikely that this was “an innocent mistake”: after all, the owner of this flag certainly knew what it symbolized. But let’s be naïve for a minute and assume it was; then it is yet another proof of the tragic cultural and historical shallowness of these Marines. Moral too, when considering what their “colleagues” recently perpetrated elsewhere in Afghanistan, an act quite in line with the ideology represented by that infamous flag. Was that an “innocent mistake” too?

This news item reminds me of a situation I witnessed when visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art, three decades ago. A little printed sign at the entrance of each hall indicated the period and/or genre which the works hanging on its walls belonged to. I happened to be standing in the “Post-War Art” room when two men, in their early 20s, stepped in. Here is what I overheard them say to each other:

— “Post-War Art”. Which war do you think this refers to?

— Must be the Vietnam war.

Had smartphones and search engines been around then, these not-too-smart guys might have googled for the expression and found, right from the second paragraph of the first site to be listed, its real meaning “in Western usage”. Yet googling is definitely not knowing, and external information is not internalized knowledge.

But what would have prompted them to think these two words had a specific meaning beyond their literal (mis)interpretation? Why would these Marines think, how could they ever imagine, that these two letters meant something else than “Sniper Scouts”?

Education. Knowledge.

They didn’t know.

We didn’t know

        We didn’t know said the burgermeister,
        About the camps on the edge of town.
        It was Hitler and his crew
        That tore the German nation down.
        We saw the cattle cars, it’s true,
        Maybe they carried a Jew or two.
        They woke us up as they rattled through,
        But what did you expect me to do?

We didn’t know at all, we didn’t see a thing.
You can’t hold us to blame, what could we do?
It was a terrible shame, but we can’t bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.

Tom Paxton (1965)

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