How is it possible to feel the humanity of a person who has systematically and brutally maimed or murdered innocent people for the sake of an ideology?
In 2005 I met Andrew Rice whose brother was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Andrew said something which has resonated with me ever since. His experience of losing someone he loved deeply had made him come to the conclusion that, “those people crying loudest for retribution so often seem to be the least affected”.
Certainly to imagine that punishment or payback rehabilitates the victim is a delusion but I hadn’t quite realised to what extent those who have suffered most can be healed by reaching out towards the very thing that has hurt them. This is the essence of Restorative Justice . In the past decade I’ve met many victims who have reacted in totally counter intuitive ways to trauma – in other words rather than seeking revenge they have tried to build bridges of peace and reconciliation.
I am reminded of this anomaly on an almost daily basis on twitter when posts of mine calling for a less reactive and more effective criminal justice system, attract hostile counter tweets – such as @VCofKnowsley whose answer to my despair at the persistently high reoffending rates was “Simple! Don’t let them out, let them rot or make jails like the Old Guards Depot”. I cannot vouch for @VCofKnowsley but broadly speaking I’m sure that people calling loudest for retribution are very likely to be people with no direct experience of what they are seeking to avenge.
Of course sometimes those most affected by crime and violence stay locked in the trauma, where their justifiable rage towards the perpetrator may fester or freeze. But I believe a great many more have transformed trauma into a place of healing through reaching out to others and asking – why?
Aqeela Sherril’s 18-year-old son was murdered in 2004. No one was brought to justice and even though Aqeela knows the killer’s identity, he has chosen not to seek revenge. He tells people that his son’s killer is a victim too – “a victim of a culture that lacks compassion.” And he explains –
“you can only kill someone if you have a callous heart, so I want to know why this young man had such a callous heart. It’s not enough simply to catch him and throw him away”.
Aqeela’s attitude, like that of so many other bereaved parents I have met, comes not just from compassion, but is an act of self-healing. As someone said to me the other day: “the place where an old hatred becomes a new love is the holiest place on earth.” Or as Aqeela would say, “where the wounds are, the gift lies.”
Many of these survivors of violence and terrorism share their stories on The Forgiveness Project website, as a way of countering the more strident calls for payback and retribution. While some say they do not feel comfortable using the word forgiveness because it is open to so many messy interpretations, I believe all would embrace the concept, if they knew of Ginn Fourie’s chosen definition which states that: “Forgiveness is the principled decision to give up your justifiable right to revenge.”
Ginn – whose 23-year-old daughter, Lyndi, was killed in the 1993 Heidelberg Tavern Massacre in Cape Town – has since worked closely for reconciliation with Letlapa Mphahlele, the former Director of Operations of APLA (Azanian Peoples Liberation Army) and the man who ordered the attack on the Heidelberg Tavern. It was on the day she first met Letlapa that forgiveness began to stir in her heart.
“In that moment, I saw remorse in his eyes and body language. It would have been so much easier if he’d been a monster with horns and a tail – if there was something to hate.”
This again was about reaching out and hearing the story from the other side – which does not take the pain away but gives meaning to it. As Ginn says about Letlapa,
“I know his comrades’ bullets killed my daughter and that terrible pain will always be with me. But I have forgiven this man who gave the command. I feel his humanity.”
These victims of violence and terrorism recognize that the more you slam down something, the more people re-group and emerge in a stronger, more resilient way. There is an understanding that bombing civilians only grows resentment. And there is a real desire to break the cycle of violence.
It is often assumed that to explain is to excuse and to understand is to forgive. Certaintly explanation should be used to put something in context, and never for justification, evasion or consolation, but why should understanding that a young man has grown angry through shame and poverty, or through insidious indoctrination, explain away or excuse an act of terrorism?
Usama Hasan, a former Islamist working as Senior Lecturer in business information systems at Middlesex University in London who now speaks out against Islamaic extremism said at the Google Summit Against Violent Extremism in June this year: “I would ask you to understand one thing, try to understand why people are driven to certain measures. In the case of Islamic terrorism, or Muslim Jihadists, most of them I know are not ill intentioned – but become corrupted along the line. They are trying to answer real problems about what they perceive to be the suffering of their nation.”
As Fyodor Dostoevsky so appropriately said “Nothing is easier than to condemn the evil doer, nothing is harder than to understand him.”