Marina Cantacuzino: We can forgive without excusing

To Lord Tebbit I’d say that what we seek to do is explain violence, and understand it

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Last October, The Forgiveness Project – a charity which explores forgiveness and conflict resolution through the stories of real people – held a controversial event at The House of Commons in collaboration with The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues.

On the day after the 25th anniversary of the Brighton bombing, Patrick Magee, the man responsible for planting the bomb, spoke alongside Jo Berry, the daughter of MP Sir Anthony Berry, who was killed in the blast.

It was an impassioned debate which stirred emotions and opened minds. The only part to make headlines, however, was Magee's refusal to repent for his past actions. Despite the fact that the former IRA activist is always at pains to stress that, in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, violence can no longer be justified, few people ever seem to notice.

As a result of this complex discussion I asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu to deliver The Forgiveness Project's inaugural annual lecture on the subject, "Is Violence Ever Justified?" Clearly he appreciated the challenge, and on 12 May, at St John's Smith Square in London, he will be speaking alongside Patrick Magee and Jo Berry. Also on the panel will be Mary Kayitesi Blewitt who lost more than 50 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide.

No doubt the ethics of violent resistance will be fiercely debated, not least because Magee's position is still deeply political. At the Commons meeting, when asked if he would publicly apologise, he made it clear that this could not happen until the British government also accepted responsibility and apologised for their part in Northern Ireland's Troubles.

A day after the House of Commons event I flew to Israel to collect stories from a remarkable organisation called Combatants for Peace. I travelled between Jerusalem and the West Bank, meeting former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian combatants who no longer believe that conflict can be resolved through violence. Almost all the Palestinians I talked to did not denounce their violent past. Like Magee they believed they had been fighting a just war, defending their communities at a time – during one or both intifadas – when there was no other choice.

In the end it was only a weariness born out of witnessing the futility of the cycle of violence that made them lay down their weapons. Just like Patrick Magee, they were not going to say sorry for past actions which they saw as both provoked and inevitable.

The message of Letlapa Mphahlele is perhaps an easier one for the public to swallow. During the apartheid era Mphahlele, then director of operations of Apla, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, was responsible for many attacks on whites. But in post-apartheid South Africa, Mphahlele no longer believes violence should be met by violence. He explains: "I believed then that terror had to be answered with terror and I authorised high-profile massacres on white civilians in the same way that the whites did on us. At the time it seemed the only valid response – but where would it have ended? If my enemy had been cannibals, would I have eaten white flesh? If my enemy had raped black women, would I have raped white women?"

That The Forgiveness Project has given a voice to those who once used violence has at times angered people. Last October, aware that Magee's presence in Parliament was likely to offend, I wrote to all three leaders of the main political parties, as well as to those in the two chambers who had been most directly affected by the Brighton bomb, namely Lord Tebbit and Lord Wakeham. I wrote as a matter of courtesy, saying that I knew having Magee speak in the Commons would bring up difficult feelings, and I explained that The Forgiveness Project was an organisation that explored (rather than propagated) forgiveness through the personal stories of real people.

I stressed, in particular to Norman Tebbit, whose wife was badly injured in the blast and who has publicly declared on many occasions great hostility towards Magee, that his views about repentance being a condition of forgiveness were as valid as the views of any other victim. This, for Lord Tebbit, is non-negotiable, unlike perhaps for Reverend Ian Paisley who on the BBC Today programme last Saturday declared that repentance should be measured by what you are doing now.

Forgiveness, it seems, cuts public opinion down the middle like a guillotine. I received a fierce letter back from Lord Tebbit, ending with the line: "Your project excuses, rewards, and encourages murder."

What I would say in response to Lord Tebbit, and to those who agree with him, is that certainly The Forgiveness Project humanises violence but only in so much as it shows the pain, the hurt and the legacy. We do not "excuse" murder. We seek to understand and explain, but never to justify. For victims there is often a strong need to face the enemy; seeing the human face makes that person seem less of an "evil monster" and the world therefore a less terrifying place. I've always thought Jo Berry put it eloquently when she came to the realisation that "if I had lived Pat's life perhaps I would have made his choices".

From the restorative justice programme we run in several UK prisons – where victims but also ex-offenders (some former murderers) come to share their stories with inmates – I know this kind of intervention is extremely effective. Considering victims is the first step in developing empathy and rehabilitation for offenders.

But, just as important, discovering humanity in your "enemy" can resolve trauma for victims. Eric Lomax, a former POW in Japan who was tortured and suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress for many years, has also told his story to The Forgiveness Project. He describes the incredibly powerful effect of meeting his former torturer in 1988 in Kanburi, Thailand. He says: "I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around ... After our meeting I felt I'd come to some kind of peace and resolution."

Marina Cantacuzino is founder and director of The Forgiveness Project; Archbishop Desmond Tutu will give the inaugural Forgiveness Project Lecture, supported by The Independent, at 12 noon on 12 May at St John's, Smith Square, London

www.theforgivenessproject.com

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