The Russell Sage foundation is publishing this scholarly analysis of what the social scientists call “collective memory.” In this case, of atrocities, both at home and abroad. It’s a well-focused look at how we choose to remember or forget things that cause human suffering and violate human rights. Americans tend to think of their nation as a hero in the defense of liberty and human rights. We like to think of ourselves as the liberators of the victims of the Holocaust, for instance, but at the same time, we tend to gloss over our own atrocities, such as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, or more general evils, like slavery. The authors’ contention is that shining the light of legal action on atrocities tends to make them stick better in our collective memory, and that the more higher-level perpetrators are targeted (Holocaust, Balkan wars), the more we take seriously the need to remember to avoid future evil. If the courts prosecute just a lowly lieutenant (as in My Lai), then the memory tends to fade. And if no court of law is involved, we tend to avoid responsibility as a society (slavery, internment of Japanese citizens during WWII). The authors do a nice comparison of the way American collective memory works vs. German collective memory. It makes a big difference if you are the hero vs. the villain in atrocities that receive lots of spotlight legal attention (like the Nuremburg trials for the Germans). Overall, an interesting look at how collective memory works.