This past week, I visited the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago. The museum is a way for Chile to remember the atrocities of the Pinochet era and the story of how the country fought back. I spent hours meandering through the space learning about Chile’s recent past.
I went with a recently-made friend from Chile. Afterwards, she asked me what I thought having visited the museum. I think that when confronted with great tragedy, there is the chance that our reaction to its evil and pain leaves us with a dark opinion of humanity. This pessimistic view is understandable as it is tough for optimism to endure when you encounter stories of murder, torture, rape, censorship, terror, and despair.
Given that, something about this picture is incomplete. It’s lacking our response to tragedy. One floor of the museum contained sobering stories of torture and oppression, but the next floor told the story of the awakening of Chilean resistance and the campaign to remove Pinochet.
The floor detailing the response to the horror of Pinochet was what I kept coming back to after the visit. At the beginning of the museum, there was footage of La Moneda (the presidential palace) under siege at the start of the coup, at once both a literal and symbolic destruction of the rule of law. I listened to President Allende’s final speech to the Chilean people; you could hear the world crumbling outside. His resolute protest was eerily profound and prophetic. When I made it to the floor about the revolution, it felt like Allende’s words had been laying dormant for all those years, waiting to capture the hearts and minds of an oppressed people. It was so powerful.
Our response to tragedy is what defines us. It is not the dictators and their institutions of fear. It is not the genocides and their senseless violence. It is not the terror of an unsafe world. It is our decision to speak truth to power, to engage in the brutal struggle for a better world. That’s what I came out with after walking through the museum. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I love that idea. Yes, we stumble, heavy and often. One doesn’t have to look far to see how much more we have to go. But, we will, slowly but surely, play a part in that great bending. If there’s anything I know, it’s that. If there’s anything we must believe in, it’s that: the dogged, relentless response of the human spirit.