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BETWEEN VENGEANCE AND FORGIVENESS: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence.

BETWEEN VENGEANCE AND FORGIVENESS: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence by Martha Minow Beacon Press, $23

A few years ago, I watched a documentary on concentration camp survivors at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Without exception, the stories were harrowing--one man had been forced to set fire to his relatives after an escape attempt, another had witnessed a young mother inadvertedly suffocate her baby as they hid from the Nazis. But while these men and women had been exposed to unimaginable torture, almost all them relayed their experiences in a composed manner. I found their apparent sanity almost as shocking as the ordeals they were describing. How, I wondered, could these people have come to terms with their past?

In Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Martha Minow explores the process of rebuilding lives and societies in the aftermath of atrocity. Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School, makes clear from the outset that any response to societal-level violence will be inadequate. "Even to grope for words to describe horrific events is to negate their unspeakable qualities," she writes. But silence is not an acceptable alternative: Victims will never forget what they have been through, and denying them retribution will only build hatred and resentment. The challenge, then, is to negotiate a path between securing justice for victims and attempting to rebuild a society. Minow does not endorse any one method of performing this balancing act--she maintains that different cultures and circumstances will dictate the most appropriate response.

But she obviously favors the approach of truth commissions, particularly the South African model, where individuals who honestly tell of their role in politically motivated violence can trade their testimony for amnesty. And in this compassionate and well-reasoned book, Minow makes a compelling case for truth commissions over traditional judicial prosecutions.

As a practical matter, trials are not really geared to deal with mass violence. No criminal justice system could try every person involved in genocide and systematic rape in wartime--there are simply too many perpetrators. And prosecutions can be a blunt instrument for securing justice. Trials have to answer yes or no, guilt or innocence, all or nothing--and the degrees of culpability are often not so stark. Minow points to the example of Drazen Erdemovic, a Croat married to a Serb who joined the Bosnian Army out of financial need. After receiving a sentence of 10 years for his participation in the mass slaughter of Muslim civilians in Srebrenica, Erdemovic expressed remorse for his actions, offering this explanation:

"Your Honor, I had to do this. If I had refused, I would have been killed together with the victims. When I refused, they told me: `If you are sorry for them, stand up, line up with them and we will kill you too.' I am not sorry for myself but for my family, my wife and son who then had nine months, and I could not refuse because then they would have killed me."

The court, Minow surmises, "did not have a mechanism in hand for treating a guilty plea joined with an explanation."

Even when trials target those most deserving of punishment, there are limits to what they can accomplish. The purpose of prosecutions is to calibrate accountability and inflict punishment, not to promote forgiveness. To see rapists and murderers pay for their transgressions can give victims and their families a sense of personal vindication. But as Minow points out, "the focus on prosecution can entrench an adversarial thirst for revenge." Repairing nations ultimately requires promoting reconciliation, and prosecutions are more likely to deepen existing schisms than foster rapprochement.

In contrast, the very purpose of truth commissions is healing individuals and societies. A central task of commissions is to write a history of a nation's troubled past. The gamble is that confronting difficult truths about oppressive regimes will lay the foundation for a reconciled democracy. Generally, truth commissions conduct their investigations in secret and subsequently release mammoth reports detailing their findings. But the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) took a more ambitious approach to involve as many people as possible in the reconciliation process: They conducted the majority of their hearings in public. For two years, victims' stories dominated the country's newspapers and television programs, forcing citizens to confront apartheid's crimes. The TRC also created a Register of Reconciliation for people to write their reactions to the testimony, even if they were not victims or had no motive to seek amnesty. The reasoning is that even bystanders need to deal with their sense of guilt.

The primary focus of truth commissions, however, is on restoring dignity, to victims. Minow makes a convincing case for the restorative power of speaking about trauma. Facing the past, rather than attempting to forget it, is an essential element of healing, she explains. And in part because repressive governments almost always inflict torture and abuses clandestinely, victims can be helped by having their stories publicly acknowledged. Minow relates the experience of an individual who was blinded by an apartheid-era police officer. When asked how he felt about testifying, the man replied, "I feel what has been making me sick all of the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now I--it feels like I got my sight back by coming here."

Aside from providing catharsis for victims, truth commissions promote forgiveness. When society posits reconciliation as a primary goal, it influences individual responses to mass violence. "When a democratic process selects a truth commission, people ... say to one another: Focus on the truth and tell it whole ... [r]edefine victims as the entire society and redefine justice as accountability," writes Minow. A woman whose son had been shot by security police in South Africa eloquently summarized the humanistic motive behind truth commissions. After she listened to a police officer confess in amnesty hearings, she commented, "This thing called `reconciliation'--if I am understanding it correctly--if it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed [my son], if it means he becomes human again, this man, so that I, so that all of us, get our humanity back--then I agree, then I support it all."

Of course, not everyone shares this magnanimous vision. The family of legendary apartheid fighter Steve Biko, for example, joined a lawsuit challenging the creation of the TRC. They argued that the amnesty provisions violated the right of victims and their families to seek redress for abuses inflicted by the apartheid regime. The South African Supreme Court rejected the claim. And in a bitter twist, when Biko's interrogators applied for amnesty, they simply stated that Biko had died of a brain hemorrhage, and refused to confess to their role in the killing. Is it fair to expect Biko's family to forego retribution in the face of partial truth, or even for a complete account of what happened?

The fact that truth commissions are generally born out of political necessity can give the impression that victims are being cheated of justice. One of the U.N. commissioners on the El Salvador truth commission explained to me that trials were not an option after that country's bloody civil war--the penal system was so corrupt there was no way it could impart justice. And in South Africa, the outgoing apartheid leaders made some form of amnesty a condition for the peaceful transfer to a democratic society.

Even if truth commissions suffer from a "second-best" stigma, Minow cogently argues they are often a better option than prosecutions to deal with mass atrocity. That's particularly true when guilt cannot be assigned to any one side. Truth commissions would not have been a suitable method of dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust: Culpability lay squarely with the Nazis and the victimized group was nearly wiped out in the genocide. But when the line between perpetrator and victim cannot be drawn so easily, truth commissions can be an appropriate way of coming to terms with the past. They acknowledge ambiguity, permitting bystanders to take responsibility for inaction and allowing perpetrators to lay the groundwork for reconciliation. And while it is a tall order to expect victims to abandon demands for retribution, it can be in their interest to do so. Hatred can be self-destructive, and a preoccupation with past atrocities can lead to additional cycles of violence. "Perhaps rather than seeking revenge," writes Minow, "people can come to desire to rebuild" Instead of focusing on the horrors of the past, she seems to urge, think of the legacy you will leave to the future.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Starr, Alexandra
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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