A Lesson of Enola Gay

DEMOCRACY is often thought to be about voting. But it is also about talking.

In fact, voting without talking is usually a dangerous thing; it can lead to rash, uninformed action. That's why the United States Constitution is designed to elicit extensive debate before laws are passed. Often it is only through discussion that the necessary consensus on an issue can be found.

On Jan. 30 the Smithsonian Institution chose not to participate in the national discussion over the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan 50 years ago. It will not display a 10,000-square-foot exhibit and a 600-page script it had been preparing to accompany the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first of two atomic bombs in 1945. Instead, the plane will be shown with only an identifying plaque and perhaps a video interview with the crew. Americans will see part of the fuselage of the plane that helped end World War II, but hear no discussion of why it dropped the bomb or what that decision meant.

In an effort to not displease anyone, the Smithsonian will likely please no one. Not those who wanted the exhibit to celebrate the triumph of democracy over tyranny and honor Americans who sacrificed their lives in that effort. And not those who feel that any democracy worthy of its name must allow full discussion of its past, especially the controversial moments.

The Smithsonian decision says something about how worried many Americans have become that their common identity is under attack, that ``multiculturalists'' and historical revisionists are in danger of discrediting America's past and driving Americans apart.

This is a proper concern. And perhaps these times call for an emphasis on events and exhibits that bring Americans together and celebrate commonality. Perhaps the museum's board had no choice but to conclude that an exhibit text that satisfied all parties was not possible.

And, yes, the debate over the meaning of dropping the atomic bomb will go on among historians and other scholars. It will be argued vigorously and freely in specialist publications. But should we not worry when in a democracy - where talking, and listening, are fundamental - the national museum is unable to join the discussion and is forced to censor itself?

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