Selective amnesia is good mental hygiene, but how to decide what to junk? At what point do we not only forget, but in forgetting start to forgive? The latter half of the 20th century has seen many examples of a curious transformation. Yesterday's freedom fighter, today's statesman.
This process already applies to Northern Ireland. Just before Christmas one of the men convicted for planting the Brighton bomb - which, let's not forget, nearly murdered most of the Cabinet (and crippled Lord Tebbit's wife) - was allowed out of prison on leave. Yet the tabloids' attempt to whip up a storm came to nothing. Most people evidently feel the passage of time has washed away the horror of it. The public's amnesia is, however, highly selective. If some extra-historical "objective" scale of personal culpability could be constructed, Myra Hindley might look no more guilty than other murderers subsequently released well before their dotage. But her crime elicited a special response; it was classified as evil. IRA bombers who conspired to kill and succeeded in killing many more than Hindley go free: to kill for a cause, however questionable, appears to stimulate forgiveness, or at the very least, acceptance.
In Italy, we report today, moves are afoot to grant indulgence to many of those jailed as a result of the wave of terrorism during the 1970s and early 1980s. Then, in pursuit of the destabilisation of Christian Democrat hegemony, Italian politicians were assassinated (the discovery of Aldo Moro's body in a car boot is still a sharp visual image); public order was assaulted, most memorably by the bomb at Bologna railway station. These crimes - carried out by the extreme right as well as the left - were political. At the time and since, many Italians have believed the state was complicit, that secret service units collaborated in terror. That seems to have generated a public wish for reconciliation. Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition government, the first Italian government in which the participation of Communists has been allowed, even if they now call themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, desperately wants to move away from the robber state which the Christian Democrats and the Socialists presided over.
Amnesty in Italy thus becomes a way of affirming modernisation. But how just does that grand sentiment appear to a relative of one of the Bologna victims? Would an Italian government ever think forgivingly of the mafiosi that the Italian courts have managed to convict, when their colleagues continue to subvert law and good order across wide swaths of Sicily and Calabria and, still, taint the state itself?
A parallel process has been under way in Germany. There the courts, press and opinion have grappled confusedly with reconciliation in the aftermath of reunification. At the same time a programme of rehabilitation for the political terrorists of the late 1960s and 1970s of the Red Army Fraction and the Baader-Meinhof stamp is under way. Ulrike Meinhof may be dead, but her sisterly conspirators emerge from jail, never quite managing to meet the eyes of the relatives of the guards, business people and others they killed. Germany is willing to forget this part of the past, even though Wolfgang Schauble, the Christian Democrats' heir apparent, is confined to a wheelchair as a result of terrorist assault.
But how offensive would it be if Germans sought also to forget another part of their past, the one that ended in 1945? Public opinion in Britain, and in the United States, vehemently answers that they must never forget the Holocaust. The trial of Maurice Papon in Bordeaux showed last year that for many in France there is a class of historical crimes for which no statute of limitations can exist, which can never be washed white in the milk of amnesia. But then there are genocides and genocides. Those responsible for mass murder among the trees of equatorial Africa are not disbarred from appearing as national leaders invited to shake the hands of IMF officials and British ambassadors.
Not only do the waters of Lethe run deep, they run also in strange and various channels.