Making Peace with the Past

“The past is never dead. It is not even past.”  –William Faulkner

Bosnian Muslims in Trnopolje camp, 1992

The dividing line between past and present is almost never clear cut. We constantly carry our pasts around with us: personal, cultural, historical, and evolutionary. Often, those pasts are burdened with regrettable or undesirable incidents and other phenomena, be they tragedies, atrocities, accidents, bad memories, poor decisions, crimes, natural disasters, or even as part of our evolutionary baggage (e.g., oncogenes, a ruptured appendix, or impacted wisdom teeth). At different times we may find ourselves as the aggrieved or the aggrieving party. To the extent that we can, we make extraordinary efforts to get past our pasts via redemption, reparation, and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, people  –  individuals and governments  –  often have a hard time acknowledging the uglier parts of their histories. A month ago, Turkey recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Sweden after those countries moved closer to referring to the deaths of more than a million Armenians as ‘genocide.’ The fact that events which occurred nearly a century ago can elicit such strong reactions demonstrates the power of the past to linger into the present. On the bright side, there are some recent, more hopeful, examples that people can conquer the darker parts of their past.

Saturday’s tragic plane crash that claimed the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others called global attention to what was to be an attempt to put old ghosts to rest. The delegation was headed for the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia to honor the 22,000 Polish prisoners of war executed by Soviet troops in 1940. Although 70 years had passed since the incident, it is readily apparent that past injustices can fester if not adequately addressed.  To his credit, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first Russian or Soviet leader to honor the victims of the executions, just days before the plane crash. While Putin did not issue an official apology for the incident, Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, was hopeful:  “A word of truth can mobilise two peoples looking for the road to reconciliation… Are we capable of transforming a lie into reconciliation? We must believe we can.”  Tusk’s hope may be rewarded, as Putin stated to the Polish people: “We should meet each other halfway, realizing that it is impossible to live only in the past.” The seeds of reconciliation may have been planted in the wake of the tragic crash.

Examining a mass grave at Srebrenica

More hopeful news comes from the former Yugoslavia. Earlier today, the Croatian President Ivo Josipovic apologized to the Bosnian parliament, stating “I’m deeply sorry that the Republic of Croatia … has contributed to the suffering of people and divisions which still burden us today.” A similar act occurred weeks ago in Serbia, when its own parliament apologized for the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, with 127 of 250 members voting for approval. Reactions to the apology have been mixed, however, with some questioning whether it was part of a strategy to win European Union approval, while others condemned the parliament for referring to the killings as a crime, but not genocide. The optimist in me wants to agree with Tim Judah’s assessment of the situation:

The Serbian government finds itself caught in a position of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Belgrade had done nothing, Serbs would continue to be accused of not facing up to the past. But now that it has done something, it is being accused of acting out of ulterior motives. That is a shame. This resolution is a lot better than nothing — and a lot more than other countries have offered for heinous crimes committed in their names.

Skepticism has its place, but at some point we should acknowledge that humans – politicians included – have a basic need to be at peace with their pasts. That entails owning up to one’s mistakes, whether it’s slavery, genocide, or some other injustice at the national level, or crimes or more minor offenses at the personal level. This is the basis of social mechanisms created to allow people to atone and clear their consciences, such as the sacrament of Penance in Catholicism or Yom Kippur in Judaism. (The modern version, at least for celebrities, might be the press conference).  It is also what makes Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” or Shakepeare’s “MacBeth” compelling stories, since  indefinite endogenous guilt can often outweigh externally imposed punishment. At least with socially sanctioned punishment comes the sense of having ‘paid the price’ or ‘done one’s time.’

Along these lines, a CNN poll found that prior to the beginning of the Master’s golf tournament 60% of Americans actually wanted Tiger Woods to win.  An unscientific poll on the ESPN website reported similar statistics on the last day of the tournament, with 53% of voters supporting Woods, 33% supporting Phil Mickelson (the eventual winner), and 13% supporting someone else. Despite Woods’ widely known transgressions, a majority of people felt that he had paid the price in some way, perhaps through his public apology or humiliation, and that he deserved a chance to move forward. In a poll of Canadians, support was even stronger, with 86% agreeing with the idea that Woods should have the opportunity to move on privately and in his golf career; only 11% felt he did not deserve the opportunity to move on.

Joshua Blahyi (aka 'General Butt Naked')

Joshua Blahyi (aka 'General Butt Naked')

Though people are willing to forgive past wrongs, it cannot come without some component of sincere contrition, reparations, or punishment. In another unscientific ESPN poll, 67% of people felt that although Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was ultimately not charged in a sexual assault case, that he still deserved some form of punishment from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Legal and social redemption do not always overlap (see: Simpson, Orenthal James). Roethlisberger has gotten into trouble before, and his reputation may precede him. Good people who slip up but apologize profusely are more easily forgiven than repeat offenders who seem more interested in self-preservation than the pain they caused others. However, redemption and forgiveness have their limits, and understandably so. During the 1990s war in Liberia, Joshua Blahyi (who went by the nom de guerre of ‘General Butt Naked’) confessed to being responsible for killing 20,000 people, as well as engaging in cannibalism and sacrificing children in cold blood. He is now an evangelical pastor preaching reconciliation and peace, but I think most people would agree that he is beyond the normal parameters of human forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the power of forgiveness can be transformative and awe-inspiring. In a courtroom outside of Boston last month, a man named Mark Cronin forgave the woman who cost him his leg (and almost his life) as a result of her driving while intoxicated. Cronin also asked the judge to be lenient in her sentencing, while adding that he was motivated by the premise that it’s much healthier to forgive than to remain bitter. The inspiring episode is reminiscent of the 2008 tragedy in San Diego, where an Air Force pilot lost control of his F-18 during a training exercise, which subsequently crashed into a house, killing the wife, two daughters, and mother-in-law of Dong Yun Yoon. In an extraordinary display of emotional strength and magnanimity, Yoon forgave the pilot the following day, saying that he understood the pilot “did everything he could” and did not intentionally mean to harm his family. He added that he didn’t want the pilot to suffer from guilt. Finally, I’d be negligent if I did not acknowledge my favorite scene from  ‘Gandhi,’ which showed there’s almost always a way to atone for one’s transgressions, no matter how serious. All we need are sincerity and compassion.

Related posts:

Peace with the Past: The Arrest of Mladic (May 27, 2011)

Reconciliation, Biology, and the 2nd Indochina War (Mar 11, 2011)

Us, Them, & Non-zerosumness (Oct 9, 2010)

2 thoughts on “Making Peace with the Past

  1. Pingback: Us, Them, & Non-zero Sumness « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  2. Pingback: Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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