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Forgiving the Unforgivable
13 June 2012, 15h00 EDT (GMT-4)

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The jubilation that followed the Arab Spring has inevitably given way to anxieties about whether these newly liberated societies will master or be mastered by the demons of their past. My Insight broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda discusses what the Middle East may be able to learn from the experiences of Northern Ireland and South Africa, and asks how many of us would have it in ourselves to forgive the unforgivable. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.

* * *

Our capacity to do violence to one another is the worst tragedy of the human condition, but it makes our still greater capacity to forgive one another all the more powerful.

When I worked in peace and conflict resolution, I met Nadja, a young mother from Bosnia, green in years but withered by experience. She described the week the civil war arrived in her town. One day, she said, she came home to find the couple from next-door laughing and sharing a meal with her daughter. The next day, she came home to find the same couple holding her daughter down while their son raped her, her husband lying dead to one side of the same room.

I can not imagine the anguish her daughter and she must endure every waking moment of their lives. I did not know how to feel when she spoke of the hope they both harboured to one day forgive the people who had brought this horror upon them. All I can say is that they are both surely better people than I am.

We live in an age when the dominant form of armed conflict is no longer international wars between sovereign states, but civil strife within individual nations. Today, the challenge has moved beyond winning the war, to surviving the peace. How does anyone carry on when his mortal enemies return to being his fellow citizens?

In Northern Ireland, an interruption in violence became possible when most Unionist and Republican militants agreed to put down their weapons. However, a lasting peace became possible only when enough families found the strength to honour their dead by living for them instead of avenging them. The peace agreements required victims to accept the release of convicted terrorists, but peace has held.

In South Africa, the fall of Apartheid could easily have led to bloody reprisals. Instead, the Truth and Reconciliation process attempted to meet South Africans’ need to have the full facts of their suffering publicly acknowledged. The peace has left many victims feeling that they lost justice to gain the confessions of the crimes against them, but peace has held.

In the Middle East, countries that have so recently emerged from tyranny face stark choices, which will decide whether they will move forward or collapse back into an abyss of communal revenge. To succeed, they must find ways of satisfying the social need for former oppressors to face some form of justice. Yet, they must also find ways to come to terms with the reality that years of suffering will not be undone. Most importantly of all, they must create a national consensus that the future is more important that the past. None of this will be easy.

Some things are broken so utterly, that they can never be made fully whole again. Some wounds are so deep, that the scars can only become part of who we are. Some crimes are so grave, that there can never be adequate justice on this side of eternity. Ultimately, our only source of comfort lies in our capacity to forgive one another.

I do not know what became of Nadja or her daughter, but I do know that in even contemplating the path of forgiveness, they showed a strength I can barely understand, let alone imagine. I hope they found their way.


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