Forgiveness, Not Revenge

To break the cycle of revenge, countries must look beyond the law

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Forgiveness Section:

Apology Not Accepted
When the pain goes deep, the road to forgiveness is long

Mother Knows Best
Mother Love's talk show taps our universal yearnings

What do Murderers Deserve?
In a responsible society, vengeance has its virtues

The Victim's Dilemma
If forgiveness is divine, then why does revenge feel so sweet?

To Hell and Back
To break the cycle of revenge, countries must look beyond the law

The Decade of Atonement
National apology is all the rage

Of all the great themes of literature and history, none is more compelling than revenge. From the ancient Greeks to the evening news, every age has been transfixed by the spectacle of people driven to exact blood for blood. The excuses for revenge are as eternal as the act itself: love, honor, religion, politics, race. Beneath those rationales lies the troubling reality that vengeance is nearly unique to our species. Chimpanzees have some ability to nurse a grudge, researchers say, but we are clearly the animal best adapted to settling the score.

People have always recognized the corrosive potential of vengeance: Left unchecked, it can destroy entire cultures. That fact has never been more vivid than it is today, in the age of CNN, when history has a photographic memory. The power of the mass media is surely one of the reasons that so many countries around the world lately have been driven to apologize for past sins. At a time when no atrocity can be forgotten and every victim lies in a shallow grave, the need for a new politics of atonement may be greater than ever.

One person who has studied these issues closely is Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School. In her new book, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence (Beacon, 1998), Minow examines each of the formal responses to mass atrocity, including war-crimes tribunals, truth commissions, and reparations. All are relatively new attempts to block the ancient response: a tragic cycle of revenge that can bleed a land for decades or even centuries.

The life of a respected legal scholar in a calm enclave of reason like Harvard may seem vastly removed from the raw edge of human experience revealed by mass atrocity. But there are connections between the damage done by war crimes and Minow's other areas of interest, as suggested by her two earlier books. Whether she is writing about family law or the legal system's treatment of minorities, Minow seems keenly aware of what law can and cannot do. Her doubt that law alone can solve all social ills can sometimes rub her colleagues the wrong way, she says, even when they share her politics. But it has also kept her mind open to new approaches to justice, both inside and outside the system.

“When you're dealing with the subtleties and complexities of human relationships, law is an extremely blunt instrument,” she explains. “Law can tell people to stop doing something. It can't make people love each other; it can't make people behave differently in a day-to-day way.” While she is aware that a basic respect for law may be one of the few things that people in a multicultural society—let alone the world—have in common, she's not sure that will suffice: “I worry that there's a false hope that law can solve the problem, when, at best, in many circumstances law can create a clearing, a space, where other kinds of difficult work at building human relationships can go forward.”

In Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Minow examines how those relationships can be mended in war-ravaged societies. As she covers the history of war crimes and their aftermath, Minow pays special attention to the ongoing drama in South Africa, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) until the release of its final report last fall.

As a response to a mass violation of human rights, the TRC is a landmark alternative to criminal prosecution, Minow says. The key to the commission's success was a decision to grant amnesty to many perpetrators in return for truthful testimony about what really happened in the past. For the first time ever, a society had looked beyond the narrow satisfaction of punishing individuals to achieve a more critical goal. The hope is that by recovering its repressed history, the country can now move on, toward a democratic future.

“The healing process is incomplete, and certainly there's lots of struggle and unhappiness in South Africa,” Minow says. “But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stands as a remarkable milestone in the creation of an alternative concept of human rights—one that is inclusive, one that's not creating a new cycle of revenge.”

In Minow's view, truth commissions are not better than war-crimes tribunals—a model of prosecuting war criminals that goes back to the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials following World War II. Rather, truth commissions are an alternative that in certain cases can be more suited to the situation. “That's kind of an unusual position to take,” she says, “because generally people hold our war-crimes tribunals or criminal prosecutions as the gold standard, as the measure against which all other efforts to enforce human rights are to be evaluated. I'd argue that it really depends on your goals, and that the vision of human rights could be achieved in an alternative way.”

Born in 1954, Minow became aware of politics at an early age, she says. Her father, a prominent figure in the broadcasting trade, served under President Kennedy as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. After the family left Washington and returned to Chicago, Minow's mother introduced her to working with abused children. Both parents actively supported the civil rights movement, and Minow attended rallies with them. Seeing and hearing Martin Luther King Jr. on his visits to Chicago deeply affected her—as did watching media coverage of his murder in 1968. For a girl awakening to the violent energies unloosed in the world, TV was a window into the darker aspects of reality: assassination, racial strife, the fighting in Vietnam. This early glimpse of the extremes of human nature, beamed into the family living room, would leave its mark on her later work. As Minow has noted, growing up in the second half of the 20th century has given her and others a certain insight into the forces that shape history.

“I don't think the level of violence in this century is what makes it distinctive,” she says. “But I do think the mass media coverage of violence is distinctive.” One result is the growing role of world opinion in defending human rights, she says. For the first time ever, “the global use of peer pressure” has become an important moral force. With no sovereign to insist that individual countries obey this code, the only threat is “the possibility of shame, of holding out for everyone to see, here's what they did.”

Also unique to the age are insights of modern psychology, including the psychology of oppression. There's a better sense of how damaging violence and abuse can be, both to individuals and to entire societies, Minow notes. The challenge now is to use this knowledge to redress the deep injury often caused by such wrongs—that is, to make the victim's need for healing an integral part of the justice process.

That may explain why the concept of forgiveness seems to be growing in importance. Victims denied the chance to forgive can suffer doubly, Minow notes. Even when they win in court cases, something crucial may be missing in a system that does not allow victims to tell their stories, demand an apology, and then forgive—if they so choose. In any case, it's critical that the choice be theirs. There's nothing sentimental about forgiveness, at least as Minow presents it. Forgiveness is a complex transaction that reasserts the power and equality of those who have been injured or abused. Minow looks to the social sciences and even studies of primate behavior in defining the innate human need for “rituals of reconnection.”

Reparations, Minow says, are another important dimension of forgiveness. They also embody a paradox. “The idea that you could put a monetary value on the time spent in a Japanese internment camp, or for the loss of loved ones in the gas chambers, is insulting,” she says. Yet reparations often have a symbolic importance that dignifies them. In that sense, Minow explains, reparations can deepen the power of an apology, by showing sincerity of remorse and a desire to make things different in the future. “So in a funny way, apologies are most believable when they're accompanied by reparations, and reparations are least offensive when they really are about apology.”

The domestic American justice system tends to downplay forgiveness, Minow notes. Presidents and governors occasionally grant pardons, and perpetrators may be forced to confront their victims. But compared to other cultures—Japan, for instance—atonement and forgiveness have never been key features of American law. “There's good reason to explore more ways in which our justice system can promote the possibility of apology and forgiveness, or make more room for people to do that outside the justice system,” Minow says.

Which leads to the inevitable question: What about Bill?

“The president's failure to give a believable apology has made the granting of forgiveness very hard for lots of people,” she answers. “It's interesting that Clinton has been the most apologetic president in many respects,” she adds, noting his apologies for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, his near apology for slavery, and other ceremonial gestures. “He's not alone; many other world figures right now are doing that too; there's something about this moment that makes that seem more possible. But still, that he then would be so inept about it in his own conduct is quite remarkable.”

According to the polls, African Americans have shown a striking readiness to forgive Clinton nonetheless. Minow suggests that a number of factors may be at play. Many African Americans may feel that Clinton, a southerner committed to racial justice, has been the best president for them in a long time. Just as crucial, however, is the long-standing tradition of forgiveness in the African American community, an ethic born of historical experience and often embodied in spiritual beliefs.

In other words, the capacity to forgive is, if not a human invention, then at least a trait that can be fostered by our institutions. The influence of religion and culture also have been crucial in South Africa, where the modern model of psychological healing has meshed well with Christian notions of forgiveness. A third factor is an African concept, ubuntu, that Minow defines as “humaneness, or an inclusive sense of community valuing everyone.” In this sense of justice, no one can be human until all are human, and the fragile bonds destroyed by violence are reconnected.

That any concept of humaneness can completely cure our capacity to be inhumane remains doubtful. As Minow notes, the ethnic massacres in Rwanda in 1994 were, by some accounts, driven by a similar sense of interconnectedness gone horribly awry. Stopping the masterminds of such slaughter from ever being born may lie beyond our control, but Minow does believe that the rest of us can be taught not to become their unwitting agents.

“Really terrible violence happens because people dehumanize other people,” she says. “And so how do you prevent that from happening? It has to work at a cognitive level, but also at a kind of moral level, some sense that you just can't do that to other people, that it could be you who gets dehumanized.”

Which harks back to Minow's conviction that law alone may not be enough to break the cycle of revenge. Like the machetes used to massacre so many in Rwanda, laws are merely tools. Whether they are used for good or ill ultimately hinges on the complicated creature who wields them.