An article in the Huffington Post got me to thinking about forgiveness. The topic was whether the founder of Exodus (“cure” gays through religion) should be forgiven now that he has publicly apologized. I have no problem forgiving him for what he has done to me, for the simple reason that he did nothing to me. As to the idea that he “hurt” people because he spouted crackpot theories, I have a problem with that. Ideas and opinions do not hurt. People who cannot handle bad ideas or unpleasant opinions ought to simply stay indoors.

Forgiveness takes on an entirely different dimension when the topic involves mass murder and genocide.

Should, for example, mass murderers in Rwanda be forgiven? Their victims are being asked to do just that.

Imagine being a woman who has just watched her husband and children be hacked to death by neighbours wielding machetes. Then imagine the victim being gang-raped by twenty men, beaten, and having a hand or an arm cut off. As you begin to recover, you want to die. But then you discover that your sister and her husband were also killed and now someone needs to raise their children. You now need to care and provide for them. Some time later you are diagnosed with AIDS, contracted as the result of the gang rape. Now suppose that you hear accounts of the UN Tribunal in Tanzania that is trying many of the ringleaders. Those defendants are held in air-conditioned jails. They are fed and sheltered. They receive medical care and free legal assistance. One victim asked why she couldn’t trade places with those defendants. This is why many victims and survivors resent anything being done for the perpetrators. Their injuries are profound; their needs are great.

Then there are the Nazis. Should they be forgiven?

 …in his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal recounts how as a concentration camp inmate in Lemberg he was summoned from his slave labor detail to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The soldier had participated in the mass murder of Jewish women, children, and old men in Dnepropetrovsk, and his conscience was torturing him in his last moments on Earth. With the help of a nurse, he sought out a Jew to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness before he died.

“In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left… I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”

Wiesenthal said nothing and left. Later he questioned his behavior: “Ought I have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This a profound moral question.”

I tend to agree with Weisenthal’s position that one can only forgive crimes that were committed against him personally. Simple logic. How could I forgive someone for committing a crime against someone else?

Yet still, few people are willing to deal with the sort of thing that a Khmer Rouge victim grappled with:

We need to rehabilitate the humanity within the torturer. If we make him into a special monster, we are unable to recognize ourselves as a human being. The horror of his action seems to escape us. If we consider that he is a man with the same capacities as ourselves, then we are frightened beyond that sort of segregation that would have to be made between those that are “capable” of killing and us, who “aren’t capable of it.” We have a more terrifying understanding of the executioner when we take account of his human side. But that is not to forgive. No forgiveness. Trying to understand is not wanting to forgive. It seems to me that there is no forgiveness possible in the name of those who have died. The horror of what was done inCambodiaand elsewhere is the bottom of horror. The cries of the victims should be heard. The worst words that one can use against Duch can never be harsh enough. It is not a question of wanting to forgive what was done, and that is sometimes difficult to understand. I don’t want to minimize his crime, but realize that it could be good for us to see that we are not safe. We could do, in a certain way, a lot of the things that people have done already. And that’s frightening.



Do you think there will ever be a time in mankind’s time on this Earth when there’s an understanding, looking at past events, that mass killing is never justified, even if done with “good intentions”? Will there ever be a time when there is a peace, and thus a lack of need to commit these sort of atrocities?


I’m very pessimistic. I’m sorry–the French people still glorify the killings of the revolution in 1789. That is part of the glory of our history. Look at the War inIraq, the war between North and South Vietnam–there are so many examples. It seems that when you win a war or revolution, the dead are the bad guys and that the killings were good killings.


It was very difficult to confront victims and express my regret and feel very deeply their suffering on one hand, and on the other hand, to deeply understand that the guy who was on trial… listening to him was something very painful. What was painful was that I suddenly understood that his words could not be listened to. He said “look at me. Listen to me. Look what I have done. There is a coffin inside me, full of dead bodies. It’s something beyond any understanding for you and me. When I was young, I was not prepared to do that. I would have never though that I would one day be like I am now, in front of you.” And he was sincere. And this sincerity could not be accepted by us. We need a torturer who is a monster, a killer who is not us, a killer who does not care. We need a man with cold blood and without any regrets. When a killer expresses his regrets, it’s not something anyone wants to hear. They want to see in him this sort of nonhuman being, and that’s the only reason, I’d say, for justice to be done. Justice spares us, justice protects us, and helps us put the good in one side and the bad on the other. We “good people,” we think “oh, we’re safe. I am not that monster.” But if you try to be something else, which is to turn the face of the monster and show that the monster in question is a man with all the qualities of humanity–who loves his children, who cries, who hesitates, who was completely confused at the start of the killings and his career as a torturer—it makes everybody feel bad.

The more I understand, the more I see that the inherent contradictions in these things just plain suck.