Let’s begin with a story–or better yet, a problem.
Let’s call it The Problem of Successful Deterrence.
A few weeks ago, a UN report gave the world a devastatingly brief window–a dozen years–to keep climate change’s impact to only 1.5 C in increased global temperature. Not an easy task, when leaders in smaller communities (like Doug Ford, premier of Ontario) and world leaders (like the U.S. president, and the first-round winner of Brazil’s election) are opposed to collaborative measures to reduce emissions.
But let’s say we manage this tremendous feat. Let’s say that, despite all the evidence that politicians are going to fight for short-term corporate interests to the bitter end, we do keep the impact to 1.5 C. And… in consequence, fewer people lose their homes than anticipated. Less arable land succumbs. Fewer meteorological disasters emerge worldwide.
…Will we be ready then for the people who sniff in disdain? The ones who then declare, “Well! If it could be so easily repaired, clearly everyone was just exaggerating the scope of the problem in the first place!”
This happened already with vaccination. Generations of declining disease rates–the eradication of polio in much of the world, for example–emboldened a generation with little direct experience of devastating childhood illness. For the white, affluent, higher-educated population in particular, this meant opting out of vaccination at high rates, and directly contributing to the return of a great many disease outbreaks.
Are we truly so disaster-oriented as a species? Must we see the worst play out in our lives before we’ll be willing to entertain the possibility that the worst might yet unfold?
And if we do prevent disaster, instead of celebrating our triumph, will we forever have to fight the spin that then insists it was never really a problem at all?
Now, the Problem of Successful Deterrence is grave enough when it comes to climate change, and the fate of humans the world over.
But also, right now in the U.S., we in the West see another immediate threat. We’ve got pipe bombs targeting political dissenters. A Justice Department directing the Supreme Court not to regard discrimination against trans persons as a civil rights issue. The militarizing escalation of the Honduran caravan crisis. The ongoing horror for immigrant children at the Mexican-US border. And so we have to ask ourselves…
Do we really need to see the end result to want to stop what history tells us next unfolds?
Lessons from Restorative Justice in Action
Humans of New York is a project of street portraiture and interview with a now-global reach. Most recently, Brandon Stanton visited Rwanda, where he spoke to survivors of the 1994 genocide, which took between 500,000 and 1,000,000 lives, the majority from the Tutsi population. After the genocide, Rwanda did something that to this day citizens in more comfortable parts of the world have difficulty fathoming: it made a concerted effort not only to bear witness, to give voice to the survivors, and to mark the genocide annually, with a weeklong period of state-sanctioned reflection… but also to forgive.
To forgive, we whisper wonderingly in the comfortable West.
A survivor speaks
One of the women Stanton interviewed has a nine-part story of her whole family’s slaughter. I usually try to analyse so long a quote, but in the case of a survivor it behooves me to step out of the way. Her segment ends with the following:
“This is a picture of my father before the genocide. He’s surrounded by his Hutu friends. They’re sharing beer. They’re talking. They always viewed him as a good person. They’d even come to our home and flatter us. They’d tell my sisters and me how good of children we were. And that one day we’d marry their sons. Many of these men would later help kill my family. So how am I supposed to trust anyone? Before the genocide, there were doctors taking care of their patients. Priests were taking care of their followers. Neighbors were taking care of each other. But none of that stopped them from killing each other.
And now we’re being asked to forgive. Because our president tells us that reconciliation is the only path forward as a nation. And I know that he’s right. So I’m trying my best. I’m spending time with Hutu people. I even found two Hutu elders to mentor my son. I want him to see that Hutus have good hearts. My son even calls them ‘Grandpa.’ So I understand the need for reconciliation. And I’m trying. Christianity has helped me a great deal. But true forgiveness is impossible. My entire family was murdered. How can I possibly forgive on behalf of those who can no longer speak for themselves? It’s just not possible. But I will certainly pretend. Because I’ve seen where vengeance leads.”
And a little closer to (my new) home…
Colombia, too, is a country where restorative justice has meant taking huge leaps into the impossible: the affectation, at least, of forgiveness. For decades FARC terrorized the country. It killed. It kidnapped. FARC also used landmines to maim without killing in order to increase government costs. And estranged families by making the roads between cities unsafe for travel. Along with drug cartels and paramilitaries, it also imposed tyrannies of indentured rural servitude, destroying whole ways of peaceful campesino and indigenous life. Together, these groups displaced millions–with tens of thousands more continuing to be internally displaced today.
And still, in 2016, there came a peace deal.
Painfully, and only after two referendums!
…But a peace deal all the same–and with it, the promise of integrating FARC members into a peacetime economy with democratic representation, so the country can go forward. No FARC senators won election in the last presidential race, but the re-named peacetime party maintains 5 seats in both houses during this transitional period, as per the deal, to allow it and the general population to acclimate. At the same, the JEP, an extrajudicial process dedicated to “transitional justice” (which ideally puts conflict victims front-and-centre in restorative efforts), continues to grapple with complexities of its mission. Efforts to give conflict victims direct representation in congress, as per conditions of the peace, are also an ongoing struggle.
Because, of course, none of this is easy. No one ever said it would be.
To forgive, we whisper wonderingly in the comfortable West.
An Outsider’s Obligation to Those Who Forgive
Be thankful, absolutely, if your government has never asked you to forgive those who raped, tortured, and/or murdered parts of your family. But do not entertain the emptiness of simply saying or being “sorry” for anyone who has experienced the obverse. Because it’s not enough–and worse yet, that kind of at-a-distance contrition suggests an ongoing obliviousness to what another human’s survival of such horrors requires of all the rest.
We in the comfortable West keep asking, how do people find the strength to commit to projects of peace like Rwanda’s, and Colombia’s? But the answer isn’t that hard: by hoping it will make a difference. By hoping that the world–us included–will learn from past example.
What’s actually hard to fathom, apparently, is that this answer includes us, and asks of us that we take up our share of the immense and ongoing work that forgiveness entails.
Because it’s not just about Rwanda, or Colombia, or Yemen and Rohingya (where active genocides exist) healing themselves after nation-wide episodes of human depravity.
Every monument, every vigil, every attempt to advance political stability, every painful indignity of seeing the banner of murderers fly high in one’s government offices… When members of specific nation-states make this staggering, uneven, and yes, often brutal effort to move forward, they are acting in line with a future that we all have a responsibility to maintain.
Successful Deterrence Must Be Its Own Reward
…And so maybe the Problem of Successful Deterrence will never go away.
Let’s say that we in the comfortable West succeed at turning the tide with climate change. Even better: let’s say we first staunch the further decline of democracy and compassionate humanism. (By voting! And helping others fight the good fight!)
Well, sure… maybe when we achieve these Herculean tasks, one of our “rewards” will be decades of armchair analysts insisting that the danger was never so imminent after all. And in so doing risking another outbreak… and another. And another.
But vaccines also have their side effects.
And those side effects will always be minuscule, next to the cost of ignoring the disease.