Sometimes we are removed from a decision, have nothing to do with it, and still it says something about us–the us that is part of that collective we call society. I had nothing to do with the decision to deny Susan Atkins a “compassionate release” from prison but it was obliquely at least done in my name, and so whether or not I like it, I am involved.
As part of the gang around Charles Manson, Susan Atkins murdered Sharon Tate in the 60’s. Now after 37 years in prison, 60 herself, she has brain cancer, had one leg amputated, is partially paralyzed, and was given 3 months to live. While the current Los Angeles County district Attorney wrote a letter to the parole board asking that the request be denied, the case prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, wrote on her behalf. He said the idea that “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her” is wrong. He went on, “…what mercy are we giving her? It’s not like she has six months to live, and we’re letting her go home and she’s going to have fun with her family. My view is that anyone who opposes her request, other than relatives of the seven Tate-la-Bianca victims… is either being robotic or extremely callous. The mercy being requested now is almost too minuscule to speak of because she’s in bed and she’s going to die.”
The people who made the decision, and those who side with them and support it, no doubt think it speaks for justice, and feel entirely justified. But it seems to me that this decision says more about us than about justice. It says that we as a society are not able to exercise compassion, to know the difference between justice and harm, that we are blinded by notions of right that have nothing to do with mercy and love and those values that help us truly determine what is right. The social contract under which we all live may grant the parole board the right to have denied the request, but they did not speak for me, and I am glad they also did not speak for Mr. Bugliosi and others who agree with him.
You’ve probably heard, the 3 surviving children of Martin Luther King, Jr. are suing each other. Bernice and Martin Jr. are suing Dexter who lives in Malibu and who has apparently refused to give an accounting of money received from the sale of their father’s papers. Not long ago I read in the Financial Times about Anil and Mukesh Ambani suing each other. The reason was less clear, but they are both among India’s billionaires, giants of business, owners of Reliance Media and it looks also as future owners of Dreamworks in Hollywood. Their father is the one who made the fortune, and since his death, reports idicate they have been competing and fighting. I am sure that in each case each side believes how right they are, and possibly seeing suing their sibling as a last resort.
Anyone with siblings understands how easy it is to fight with one or another, to be put out, angry, disappointed, to have words, to shun the other, to even dis the one we believe offended us. It is harder to see how one gets to the point of a lawsuit. In both these instances the issues involved are larger than family squabbles, there are interests beyond the individuals. And perhaps that is what makes it all the sadder. Is there no underlying love to come to the rescue? Is here no sense of family togetherness that would inform a first step, an iota of forgiveness, the power to forget an offense?
Family feuds are as old as history, and certainly have biblical roots–Cain and Abel. Even the Baghavad Gita is the story of a family feud, the recounting of a war between two warring clans within the same family. It still does not make it something to be emulated. Maybe, some intermediary, legal or not, paid or not, will come forward and help these families heal their breech.
Short of that they may want to borrow a page from the Democratic party last week. Jesse Jackson although he long ago endorsed Obama, had to be egged on by his son, an Illinois Congressman and unabashed fan of the Illinois Senator. I can’t say that his overheard his rather rude comment about Obama last week when his mike was still on following a Fox News Network appearance, were a surprise. Neither was it a surprise that Jackson would automatically apologize, reaffirm his support for the nominee to be, and for the Obama campaign to glide over it and use it to advantage. What is noteworthy, if not really a surprise, was how the need for unity, in the name of the family represented by the Democratic Party trumped personal feelings. We don’t believe it, and yet we buy it. Their motives aren’t selfless–they do what it takes to win. Still unity is a value that can trump egos–and if it can trump political egos, it makes one wonder even more why it couldn’t trump family ones.
It is quite possible that forgiveness is one of the most potent human tools to heal rifts, conflicts, hurts and the many other harms humanity is known to commit. Civil wars, tribal strife, armed conflicts, the globe is unfortunately rife with them, and all, it seems, could benefit from a dose of forgiveness. In most instances, past conflicts could also benefit from its practice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa brought the idea to the forefront, demonstrated how powerful it can be and taught us that wherever forgiveness is trying to forge new bridges among former adversaries, it is undeniably noteworthy. Right now it could be of use in places like Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, even Zimbabwe and Darfur… and for all we know be more effective than the status quo.
A very good example of forgiveness in action is what John Caulker is attempting in Sierra Leone. A former undercover worker for Amnesty International, Caulker is trying out a new version of achieving forgiveness in a country that was devastated by a long and very bloody civil war that began in 1991. He calls it Fambul Tok, Krio, an English based creole, for family talk. It is an old Sierra Leonian way of sitting around a bond fire and talking to resolve disputes. In this case it is an alternative to prosecution. Not only is prosecution a Western concept and the court system throughout the country in shambles, prosecution primarily focuses on the defendants and leaves out an important part of the equation, the victim. Fambul Tok is also hoped to be an opportunity for confession of war crimes, and hopefully the release and healing that can come from them. Many of the perpetrators were victims themselves, abducted and forced to fight by a group now infamous for chopping off limbs of civilians. They had to kill, main rape or be killed.
Caulker tries to be realistic. He says he doesn’t want to make the mistake that this in itself constitutes reconciliation because he knows that what he’s doing is only the start of a process. It’s a village by village approach–so far 35 have signed up–where victims are listening, even if not necessarily talking, all in all a good beginning when there are still so many wounds to heal, reconciliation has such a long way to go, and people have so much to overcome.
Early efforts at a TRC in Sierra Leone failed, partly because they were not as rooted in the communities, raised too many hopes and perhaps set people up for disappointments. But Fambul Tok while a longer-term process may feel more authentic than anything that may seem too much like a Western institution. Meanwhile Caulker does believe in the future of his method, “People will not forgive if someone does not come forward to them in person to acknowledge what they did…Someone has to acknowledge that this person was hurt, that restores dignity to the victims.”
The G-8 is meeting on the island city of Toyako in Japan. The world’s industrial nations meet periodically (in no particular order: France, Russia, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Canada and Germany) to discuss world problems, common interests, bridge building, how to address new issues, even how to agree to disagree. These meetings are frequent enough, so much so that the journalists that cover them can end up being jaded. This time not much was hoped for in the way of breakthrough. Although were there to be, it does not mean it would be carried out. Not long ago, for example, the G-8 agreed on funds for Africa, much of which still have to be allocated or given. Still these meetings are important, for they underline and solidify a world order which is obviously vital to a modicum of peace.
This time two things struck me as particularly important. The first is the pre-meeting exchange of ideas and agenda setting. For whatever reason the Japanese Prime Minister was reluctant, some even said he lacked the courage, to put 3 main crises on the agenda, the food crisis, the economic crisis and the energy crisis. All three converge and threaten a large portion of the world’s population. So last April Gordon Brown, the U.K. Prime Minister, wrote his Japanese counterpart. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, also recognized the need and together they called for an inter-ministerial group to address the issues and present them to all the member countries. That report is a 6 page letter which is now guiding the G-8 discussion and makes it clear that the issues of food, energy, price explosions, consequences and the like must be addressed.
The second thing that impressed me was how much things have changed. World diplomacy is relatively new, centuries ago, and even generations ago, its equivalent was the king of X country marrying the daughter of the king of Y country. We can therefore criticize the lack of decisive action that is sure to come out of this meeting, or even the lack of concrete results, but we must praise the process, the very existence of these get-togethers and see them as part of some evolving way to conduct world diplomacy. We must recognize they signify progress nonetheless.