Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Dare to Know

Grandma Chaem was listening to Buddhist talk radio when the journalists found her. The case against her had just been dismissed by the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, where she had been charged with responsibility for mass murder, enslavement and crimes against humanity.  Court observers and scholars were convinced the evidence was solid, but no matter:  Im Chaen’s neighbors in her town,  want to know none of this. The New York Times wrote, “Villagers emphasized that an important part of local culture was never to pry into other people’s pasts. ‘Everyone knows Grandma Chaem, knows that she is living in the village, but we don’t know her background, what she did,’” said a village man.  The archives of the Court, assuming they are protected and preserved, will tell the story to those who do want to know.

It is easy to dismiss the concerns of someone living in a Cambodian village where knowing too much could lead to disappearance.  But many people living in safe places don’t want to know, either.  The famous Austrian writer Peter Handke went to the 2006 funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who died while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accused of genocide and war crimes. Handke, who calls himself a hater of history, delivered a speech at the funeral, saying, “I don’t know the truth.” And yet the broadcasts from the court and the archives of the ICTY, including the massive background material that was accumulated, make knowing possible. 

And then there are the uncomfortable truths to which many of us are willfully blind:  the above ground nuclear testing by the nations with nuclear arms, which harmed people and environment from the Algerian Sahara to the Marshall Islands; the money from the U.S. slave trade that funded prestigious colleges; the extent and complexity of the Holocaust; the crimes of colonialism. 

“Sapere aude”--dare to know--was a motto for the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, although its first documented use seems to have been by the Roman poet Horace in 20 BCE. With the swamp of information on social media and the internet, daring to know must include daring to know what truly happened—sorting facts from false facts. We must dare to know what is in the archives, both the information that makes us uncomfortable as well as that which supports our beliefs. A healthy society supports those who dare to know.