Forgiveness: a strategy against war

Other societies should follow the example of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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The Independent Online
"The National Party is prepared to admit its many mistakes of the past and is genuinely repentant ... and we have gone on our knees before God Almighty to pray for His forgiveness," said ex-president de Klerk before the South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town this week.

It is not a term that is familiar to modern political discourse: forgiveness. "Never apologise, never explain," is the politician's usual motto. The concept is unusual enough anywhere in public life that it provokes comment whenever it surfaces. It got 71-year-old cancer sufferer Sir Conrad Swan into the news yesterday when he said outside the court that he forgave the hit-and-run Porsche driver who killed his wife. Indeed the last time it surfaced in a significant way was nine years ago after the bomb at the Enniskillen war memorial when Gordon Wilson, the father whose daughter died holding his hand in the rubble, amazed the world by announcing immediately that he forgave the IRA.

And yet the conditions for forgiveness in the modern world are ripe. Since the fall of Communism and the democratisation which has followed the end of military dictatorships in the Third World, society after society has confronted the same question: how to deal with the offences of the past and heal the rifts they have caused.

It is, of course, a culturally defined issue. That became clear when war veterans demanded an apology of the Japanese on the 50th anniversary of VJ-Day. In the event the gap could not be bridged between the Japanese culture of shame, where the ultimate betrayal is the violation of a common trust, and the Western culture of guilt, where it is an inner code of conscience which is supposed to govern behaviour. Such differences must cast doubt on the likely efficacy, or desirability, of the notion that a UN International War Crimes Tribunal should be inaugurated to sit as a permanent body.

Even within the Judeo-Christian tradition coming to terms with the past has been handled in different ways. Most countries have gone for truth or reconciliation, but not both. In Argentina members of the former regime have owned up to crimes, but knowing that a pardon was promised (a pardon is not forgiveness, merely a decision to allow an offence to go unpunished). In Chile the villains of the Pinochet era have been allowed to slide off into the past. In El Salvador the US-backed government assassins are still around, with their misdeeds simply publicly unacknowledged. East Germany staged some trials, but many of them were inconclusive; in a country where as many as 10 per cent of the population worked for the secret police, guilt is something that appears to attach to a state, a culture and an entire people rather than to individuals. In the UK, recent pursuit of Nazi war criminals in their eighties in Surrey or Edinburgh has highlighted our own ambivalences.

The question this begs is: who forgives? Can it truly be only the victims or their relatives, those who suffered from the offence and who need justice to provide an end to their awful unfinished story? Or can society take it upon itself to forgive on their behalf, even as it dispenses justice on the grounds that the victims are too partisan to pronounce fairly?

In part that depends on whether forgiveness is an emotion or an act of will. It depends too where the crime is located. In the past casuistry has always traced sin back to the morally culpable acts of individuals. More recently moral theologians have perceived that evil can be inherent in systems whose structures must be transformed if social justice is to be achieved. The Pope has written recently of "influences and obstacles which go far beyond the actions and brief lifespan of an individual". He had in mind systems of unfair trade that keep the Third World poor, but the notion is equally applicable to the system of apartheid.

FW de Klerk acknowledged as much this week. "We are all children of our times and the product of the cultural and political circumstances into which we were born and with which we grew up," he told Desmond Tutu's commission. "Obviously, there rests an overall responsibility on the leadership of the various parties, organisations and institutions which were part of the conflict ... I accept such overall responsibility in respect of the period of my leadership."

Of course, there are those who have cast doubt on his sincerity. And yet, even if his apology is rooted only in expediency, it performs a valued function. One of the lessons of history is that without apology and a plea for forgiveness some wounds never heal. That is the story of Northern Ireland, of Bosnia and of Cyprus, which until recently some of us fondly assumed had gone away. Such rankling is what lies behind apparently foolish suggestions that the United States should apologise for Columbus or Europe for the Crusades.

Forgiveness, then, may be a utilitarian strategy as much as an ethical imperative. It can be rooted in secular concepts of virtues and vices, rights and duties, rewards and retributions, as much as in the Methodism of Mandela or the summum bonum of Archbishop Tutu's Christian interaction of forgiveness, love, justice.

For it is the possibility of forgiveness which makes remorse feasible. Remorse is the start of reparation. Reparation is the beginning of rebuilding the process of trust. And without trust no society can ever come to be at peace with itself.