Last October, The Forgiveness Project – a UK-based 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 following day, 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 ever seem to take any 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 May 12th this year, 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 publically apologize, he made it clear that this could not happen until the British Government also accepted responsibility and apologized 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 organization called Combatants for Peace. I traveled 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. However, 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 authorized 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?
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