Monday, April 18, 2005

Punishment vs. Forgiveness

The New York Times reports on amnesty and forgiveness in Uganda's civil war.
[F]orgiveness and rage are mixed in many people's heads. Former rebels who have surrendered have been largely welcomed back to the communities they had preyed upon, with each new arrival celebrated as a sign that the war is fizzling out. But former fighters complain that they are sometimes shunned and subjected to taunts, as well.

Conacy Laker, 25, finds it hard to look anyone in the eye after losing her nose, ears and upper lip to rebels more than a decade ago. Her physical wounds have healed, but her suffering goes on.

'I have nothing to say to the person who cut me,' she said sternly, staring at the dirt. 'But the person needs to be punished like I was punished.'

A moment later, though, forgiveness seemed at the fore. 'What I'm after is peace,' she said. 'If the people who did this to me and so many others are sorry for what they did, then we can take them back.'
On the forgiveness side, it isn't all sweetness and innocence.
After being welcomed back into the fold, the offender must sit down together with tribal leaders and make amends. After confessing to his misdeeds, the wayward tribesman is required to pay the victim's kin compensation in the form of cows, goats and sheep.
There is an essential difference between traditional African approaches to justice and western approaches. One difference is the requirement that the person to be forgiven repent of his deeds, and repent in a believable way. In South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process, the victims of a crime were asked to judge the credibility of the accused's repentance. That judgment was a significant factor in deciding how to treat the accused.

In some ways, this still hangs on in western justice: in our court system a convicted criminal is given an opportunity to express remorse before sentencing. But these days with mandatory sentencing guidelines, remorse doesn't seem to count for much.

More generally, the difference in these two approaches reflects a difference in how we view ourselves and the world. Are we a clockwork universe in which people are essentially behaviorally robots and in which once one commits a crime one is required to "pay the price" no matter what? Or are we a universe of humans who interact with other humans, people who see each other for who they are at the moment, willing to accept the possibility of true remorse and forgiveness?

Certainly the second is far more open to manipulation, to false expressions of remorse, to being used and abused by habitual and cynical criminals. On the other hand, isn't it likely that the very act of having to face one's victims, of having to know during that confrontation whether one feels remorse for what one has done, will have a significant positive effect on those who have misused others? Such a system may allow some people to get away with murder. But it is also likely to redeem a great many more people that it hurts.

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