Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 18th, 2010

On 30 January 1972 a civil rights march on the streets of Londonderry in Northern Ireland turned into a scene of mass carnage. Trigger-happy soldiers of the elite British paratroop regiment opened fire on the unarmed marchers, killing 14 men, some as young as seventeen, and injuring thirteen others. That day, known henceforth as Bloody Sunday, proved a watershed in the Irish conflict. The nonviolent civil rights movement was abandoned as thousands of men and women joined the ranks of the Provisional IRA. More than six thousand people died in the violence that gripped Northern Ireland and spilled over to the British mainland.

This week the Saville Report, the culmination of a 38-year old campaign by families of the dead and a 12-year investigation by the British government (the longest in its history) into the events of Bloody Sunday, was released. It vindicated the innocence of those who died, thereby overturning the conclusions of a slipshod investigation by a British judge, Lord Widgery, a few months after the killings. Prime Minister David Cameron, introducing the Saville Report in a speech to the House of Commons,  made a fulsome apology on behalf of the nation and its government to the families of those who had died. The apology, although nearly four decades late,  was received with jubilation by the people of Londonderry.

Nations are not like individuals, but political leaders can have an enormous impact on the way individuals come to terms with the painfulness of the nation’s past. Acknowledging the wrongdoings of politicians, police forces and armies makes individuals feel that they are being recognized as persons and that their suffering is not belittled. It also honours the memory of their loved ones, however belatedly; and the desire to honour the dead can be a powerful incentive for seeking revenge. Apologies can drain that desire for revenge.

Can, but not will. There is nothing automatic about the process of national healing. Even if political apologies lead to the prosecution or resignation of those responsible (and, in most cases, they should), there are no guarantees that reconciliation will follow. Apologies can be rejected by those who would prefer to cling to a monolithic  identity as “victims”. It can also lead to justification for continued violence against the state. And, on the part of those who support the state and its military, there is usually a considerable psychic investment in the nation’s “heroes”- often the elite combat regiments whose exploits are celebrated in popular fiction and films. An apology can be taken by the latter as a betrayal of the whole regiment or even the army itself. Every nation needs its “heroes”, and admitting that its heroes were guilty of war crimes or other unlawful killings can threaten the “good us versus evil them” discourses on which many nations and communities build their moral identities.

However, even if truth and justice are insufficient, and impossible to achieve except in a very limited way, they are indispensable for healing between people and nations. They undermine collective self-righteousness. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. And it is not from the powerful but from the powerless that forgiveness is offered. The Crucified One is the ultimately innocent victim who breaks the link between guilt and suffering. This is no cheap forgiveness that ignores truth and justice, but a costly forgiveness that makes possible new beginnings and new relationships, based not on power but radical equality. Every act of forgiveness is creative, shattering the stereotyped images and myths we carry of each other, refusing to treat the other the way we ourselves have been treated, and thus creating new possibilities for the future.

Dare we hope that David Cameron’s example will be imitated by leaders in countries such as Sri Lanka, Israel, India, or the USA? In the case of Sri Lanka, where I live, the prospects are frankly bleak. Draconian emergency laws are still in force and wielded against anybody who dares to suggest that atrocities were committed by all sides in the 30-year war that ended last year. The ruling regime continues the rhetoric of a “war against terrorists” and is unwilling to support any independent investigation of war crimes or human rights abuses by the nation’s “heroes” and the shadowy paramilitary groups that have operated with impunity for so long. In the dominant religious culture, apologies are seen as signs of weakness rather than strength, and voluntary resignations by public officials are completely unheard of! In such a climate, may addressing the immediate physical needs of all war victims and their families, especially those Tamils still languishing in detention camps, be the first step in the healing process?


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