The part of human rights advocacy that interests me the most is the healing that follows intense moments of suffering, pain, tragedy, and atrocity. How on earth do communities heal following unimaginably devastating experiences of genocide, terrorism, and oppression? How do we heal from intense pain? How do we rationalize the irrational?
Initially it might be tempting to say that to repress a painful memory is to erase it. I think about the movie Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliant movie about the erasing of painful memories in order to provide a sense of peace. But I think this temptation is problematic, especially for collective memory. After egregiously traumatic events such as the Rwandan genocide, 9/11 terrorist attack, or a decades-long repressive regime, with so many people involved, we cannot forget.
In the Islamic tradition, justice cannot be achieved without truth. In a passage from the Islamic scholar Imam ‘Ali writes:
“Justice is also based on four disciplines:
immersion in understanding,
penetration of knowledge,
brightness in judgment,
and firm establishment of thoughtfulness.”
Justice cannot be properly established without truth. One cannot proceed justly without full understanding. I think about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. One of the most heralded accomplishments of the TRC is its adherence to truth-telling. The TRC sought to publicize the injustices committed under the apartheid regime by bringing together both victims and perpetrators to share their stories. The idea was that perpetrators could find amnesty if they admitted to their wrongdoings, while victims could find healing through the uncovering of truth.
In this podcast from On Being (https://onbeing.org/programs/charles-villa-vicencio-and-pumla-gobodo-madikizela-truth-and-reconciliation/), one journalist recounts the story of a man who admits to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of dozens of men. She interviewed the widows of these men at the hearing and heard surprising reactions. She recounts how one woman found solace in his testimony. She talks about how knowing exactly what had happened to her husband (however brutal) gave her a sense of peace, because at least it was honest. I am reading East of Eden right now and it reminds of a quotation from the book, “There is more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” I wonder if this woman would agree.
I think about the United States, how President Obama (finally) in 2009 gave a formal apology to the Native American population, and why that was so monumental after centuries of pretending as if the genocide of Native populations never took place. Again, another On Being podcast, about the need for apologies from the poet Layli Long Soldier (https://onbeing.org/programs/layli-long-soldier-the-freedom-of-real-apologies/). She says,
“for Native people, talking about these things — it’s important to a process of healing. And for me, I think it’s not just healing. I would add to that a sense of justice, being heard. And then on the other hand, she said for non-Native people, hearing and listening to these narratives, these histories, and engaging in a conversation, it is not about guilt, and it’s not about shame. It is about, in her words, I think she said “freedom from denial.” It allows a liberation.”
There is this idea along the lines of ‘The truth will set you free.’ One of the greatest downfalls of the ERC (Morocco’s TRC to deal with the Years of Lead marked by severe political and social repression) is its lack of transparency. The Commission held hearings, but did not name the crimes nor the criminals found guilty in the process. And while most victims (nearly 99% by current numbers) have been monetarily compensated, it begs the question, is truth-telling a necessary part of healing? Do we have to understand “Why?” in order to heal? But then how do you “understand” something like the Holocaust? How can that ever make sense?
There is a second component to the Islamic principle of truth. Truth not only refers to an understanding of external realities, but of oneself. Islamic thought promotes the idea that to know Allah, one must know oneself. We must acknowledge the divinity that lies within through an understanding of our values, our perceptions, our own truths. And when I think about human rights abuses and healing, I don’t think I fully believe that a full, clear, and objective understanding of the atrocity is the answer. Or at least, it’s not the full answer.
In the realm of restorative justice, emphasis is placed on the healing of victims above all else, in order to heal the community as a whole. (As well as transforming perpetrators’ shame into accountability.) And I think that’s what I believe, too. I think when injustice occurs, it’s more important to care for the person most in need. It’s important to make the experience livable for those who have been most devastated. One quotation that has really resonated with me is from the same podcast on the South African TRC, “You reach out to people in pain.”
I listened to another podcast about complicated grief recently (http://onbeing.org/programs/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure/). And I loved the idea of allowing grief to become an incredibly personal experience. The process of healing doesn’t have to be prescriptive. Dr. Boss talks about allowing for non-traditional ideas of grief. One thing she talks about that I really like is the importance of paradoxical thoughts. That things can be both okay and not okay, and that we should normalize grief and sadness. Because sadness is a part of the human experience. Because there isn’t always a “quick fix”. Because how could we possibly reconcile such tragic events as the death of a child or a devastating divorce?
So then how do you construct a community with this knowledge? Does tragedy remain forever a part of societies with dark histories? And maybe it does and maybe it has to. There are steps that should be taken in the wake of incredible atrocity: monetary reparations, public hearings, communal dialogue between victims and perpetrators, prosecutions if necessary, and a reforming of the political and social institutions most at fault. And there’s something to be said for the proper passage of time. But if the goal is absolute and complete healing, thinking of healing as an erasing of the past, I don’t know if it’s possible. I don’t know if communities (and individuals) can ever return to a place prior to the tragedy. But that makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I think it’s an idea that makes a lot of people deeply uncomfortable.
Another podcast (http://www.onbeing.org/programs/michael-mccullough-getting-revenge-and-forgiveness/) talks about the violence in Northern Uganda and the infamous warlord Joseph Kony. Dr. McCullough talks about the desire of some Ugandan villages for the Ugandan government to offer amnesty to members of the Lord Resistance Army, in order to promote communal healing. We can look at these pleas and the ability to forgive horrific transgressions as highly merciful and altruistic acts. And while I don’t doubt the immense mercy and strength required to want to forgive injustice, I also wonder if this desire comes from the same desire that draws me to human rights law. I wonder if there is something about people, and especially about Western culture, that feels compelled to fix. I think about Brené Brown and her “measuring stick” in relation to shame. I think about my mom and her love of the ending of The Giving Tree. There is something extremely disturbing about…well, for lack of an eloquent term, bad. Shame. Grief. Conflict. Atrocity. It makes many, myself included, deeply, deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And so we react by researching, by retaliating, by reconciling. Because maybe if we could just understand, or kick and scream, or forgive selflessly, it wouldn’t be so, well, bad.
And this reflection is not to say that human rights atrocities shouldn’t be addressed seriously. I believe that we are compelled to improve the lives of others, both from a place of spirituality and a place of common humanity and empathy. Omid Safi from Duke University talks about the intermingling of the political and religious that I love. (And it’s not a podcast, it’s an article – http://onbeing.org/blog/the-spiritual-is-political/) The human rights lawyers and advocates I have met in Morocco have inspired me tremendously. And it’s further complicated by the fact that everything is contextual. Different societies and cultures may not require one, universal form of what counts in the international human rights realm as “communal healing.” I don’t doubt the importance of communal healing, especially for victims, but I have begun to question my ideas about what communal healing should look like. I have begun to question where the interest in questions surrounding justice, deterrence, and healing comes from.
Things can be both okay, and not okay. I don’t know how communities ought to heal following human rights atrocities. So, instead, I’m just going to post another song that I’ve been jamming to lately.