Forgiveness, Not Revenge

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

| March-April 1999

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.

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