Applying the ideas of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry to present day Rwanda, our author argues that reconciliation after genocide is just another form of torture.

“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light. Even worse, the phenomenological realities—the human truths—of the victims’ experiences are often ignored or, at best, treated as pathologies that should be “worked through” until the promised land of forgiveness is reached. This is not just a mistake but a dangerous one; for it is doubtful that any sustainable peace, and any sustainable politics, can be built without a better, which is to say a tragic, understanding of those truths.


No one has described the victims’ experience more astutely or intransigently than Jean Améry—writer, résistant, Jew—who was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and survived (or, as he insisted, did not really survive) Auschwitz and other camps. Améry’s relative anonymity is a shame, for he wrote some of the most original, incisive, and discomfiting essays on torture and genocide ever penned—essays that are, sad to say, still strikingly relevant, and that challenge current ideas about what reconstruction after genocide might look like. Despite the restrained irony of Améry’s voice, his writings accumulate into an accusatory howl.

The destruction of the autonomous self—a destruction that, if he survives, will continue to haunt the victim—makes torture “the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

As he hung from a hook in a Gestapo prison, Améry learned some quick lessons. “The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come,” he would later write. This helplessness is social more than physical, and bespeaks isolation and abandonment more than pain. The prisoner knows that the world has forsaken him—rescue, aid, solace are impossible—and that he is, therefore, no longer part of the world, even if he is not yet dead. Améry learned, too, that all those aspects of his character that he had considered central and unique would quickly vanish, leaving only one irrefutable reality: the body in pain. “The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may… call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints… Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed so thoroughly into flesh.” The destruction of the autonomous self—a destruction that, if he survives, will continue to haunt the victim—makes torture “the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

The tortured person loses what Améry called “trust in the world”: a belief in the social contract, a belief that the boundaries of the body will be respected, a belief that the world wants to share itself with you. Trust in the world means that you, too, are entitled to a minimal safety and a minimal life: though the world might not shower you with happiness, it will at least defend your right to exist. The loss of that trust, Améry argued, is a kind of mutilation. That is why “whoever was tortured, stays tortured… It was over for a while. It still is not over. Twenty-two years later I am still dangling.”

In a startling piece called “Resentments,” written in the mid-1960s and addressed to a German audience, Améry wrote of the exultation he felt after the war, when the corroding loneliness of the torture-and-concentration-camp victim was eased. Améry was returned not only to life but to the family of man: he was in sync, intellectually and morally, with the world around him. This was, for him, “a totally unprecedented social and moral status, and it elated me,” he recalled. “There was mutual understanding between me and the rest of the world. Those who had tortured me and turned me into a bug… were themselves an abomination… Not only National Socialism, Germany was the object of a general feeling that before our eyes crystallized from hate into contempt.” Yet there were already troubling countercurrents, and Améry wrote scathingly of “the Jews”—he cited Martin Buber as one—“who in this hour were already trembling with the pathos of forgiveness and reconciliation,” of the “so-called re-educators from America, England, or France, who could scarcely wait to rush to Germany, West or East;” he himself “wanted no part of any compassion.” In general, though, the immediate postwar years were ones of international solidarity, in which the possibility existed of a regained trust in the world.

This idyll was not to last. An essentially unrepentant Germany was soon reintegrated into the international community (even as Israel’s “right to exist” was increasingly questioned, much to Améry’s despair). Germany—or at least West Germany—reclaimed its former status as the economic powerhouse of Europe; Germans, East and West, dissociated themselves from the Third Reich, which was now regarded as “nothing other than an operational mishap of German history.” Most of all, the survivors were viewed, if they were thought of at all, as shameful reminders of a broken past who should quietly resume their lives and live in humble comity with others (or, at the very least, quit complaining if they couldn’t); even “my former fellows in battle and suffering,” Améry complained, “were now gushing over about reconciliation.”

Against such gushing, Améry posited the moral necessity not just of remembrance but of undying resentment—at least until the perpetrators had diligently revisited, owned, and atoned for their crimes. He railed against the “natural” process in which time presumably heals all wounds, arguing that when a crime such as the Holocaust—the negation of the natural—has occurred, we are no longer bound to respect nature’s laws; the Germans, he insisted, “cannot allow a piece of their national history to be neutralized by time.” In Améry’s schema—which I find slightly mad and morally thrilling—the German nation would scrupulously revisit its years of Nazi barbarism and “would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation.” Instead of disowning its ignominy, Germany would claim the Third Reich as its full responsibility, “its realized negation of the world and its self.” In this diligent, ruthless interrogation of the past, victim and victimizer would meet again, but on radically different terms than before: “On the field of history… two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral.” Only on this basis could reconciliation be contemplated; only on this basis could the victims’ “extreme loneliness” be eased. And though Améry was not advocating an eye-for-an-eye—that is, the murder of six million Germans, or even the planting of a few bombs in postwar Berlin cafés or on Munich buses—he was not averse to capital punishment, however inadequate such punishment was. Indeed, Améry argued, it is precisely at the moment of execution that “the antiman” regrets his past and can, therefore, “once again become a fellow man.” This comfortless view is, needless to say, highly unorthodox—or, at least, is rarely articulated, much less proclaimed.

Every genocide is unique. Yet the crushing isolation that tormented Améry is eerily reproduced by the present-day survivors of Rwanda’s genocide; so, too, is his disdain of facile ideas about forgiveness.

What becomes clear is that forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to perpetrators.

Rwanda—tiny and densely populated—faces a problem that no other country has or does: the Hutu murderers and Tutsi survivors of the 1994 genocide live, side-by-side, in unprecedented intimacy; however monstrous this may seem, Rwanda’s history clearly shows that all other options are worse. The government is dominated by formerly exiled Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (imagine if Jews had ruled Germany after World War II); for reasons that are practical and perhaps moral, this government has mandated, from above, an official policy of national reconciliation, however subjectively grueling that may be. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker last year, Rwanda’s political requirements are “emotionally incomprehensible.”

Several years ago, in response to bulging jails and an overwhelmed, dysfunctional justice system, the government made two decisions. In 2003, it released forty thousand imprisoned génocidaires and sent them back to their villages. And it has reinstated the gacaca courts, community-based forums in which perpetrators and victims face each other and are judged by their neighbors; more than a million cases have been heard. These confrontations have been the subject of an enormous amount of international interest, and disputation, from journalists, anthropologists, NGOs, legal scholars, religious activists, and human-rights organizations; the gacaca trials have been praised as an “authentic” form of African justice and derided as kangaroo courts that elide modern legal procedures regarding rights and evidence.

What becomes clear—especially in the remarkable trilogy of books on post-genocide Rwanda by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld—is that forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to perpetrators. Indeed, the perpetrators speak of forgiveness with an outrageously obtuse sense of ease and entitlement. In Hatzfeld’s 2003 book, Machete Season, a killer named Jean-Baptiste Murangira assures the author, “I am certain of being forgiven, because I confessed… Forgiveness will help us to forget together.” A convict named Adalbert Munzigura explains, “It will take time, and the effort will be hard, but this forgiveness is necessary.” And Ignace Rukiramacumu confidently asserts, “I know in the opposite situation, I would manage to forgive my offender,” then threatens, “If I am not pardoned, I will keep the attitude of an offender.”

In Hatzfeld’s most recent book, The Antelope’s Strategy, these same killers, now freed from jail, have adopted the jargon of personal growth, which might be amusing if it wasn’t so grotesque. “I am even a better person” as a result of the genocide, Pio Mutungirehe promises. “I married a Tutsi. All that upheaval of the genocide was of benefit to my psychology.” Pancrace Hakizamungili, also a convicted génocidaire, testifies that “I am a man improved by the experience of those cruel things… I was a good and pious boy; I have become a better and more pious boy, that’s all. If I may put it this way, I have been purified by wickedness.”

In contrast, the victims sound positively Améryian when discussing questions of justice and reconciliation. They know what the world expects of them—“humanitarian foundations… spend millions of dollars urging us to forgive, ” as one survivor puts it—and how irrelevant such expectations are to their lives. Reconciliation “satisfies the authorities, the international donors, and as for the sorrow of the survivors, that’s just too bad, ” Marie-Louise Kagoyire, who lost her entire family, says. Of the perpetrators, another survivor asserts, “I myself would have no trouble watching them be shot, one after the other, in public.… Forgiving them means nothing human. That may be the will of God, but not ours.”

Revenge and reconciliation are often posited as opposites, with justice as the mediator between the two. But the Rwandan victims understand—far more wisely than either perpetrators or theorists—how inadequate all these purported solutions are; each fails to address, to heal, to unmake, or even to lessen the crime of genocide and the unending pain it causes. For the so-called survivors, genocide is the crime with no sentence, the problem with no solution, the crime with no end. “What’s the use of looking for mitigating circumstances… ?” asks Berthe Mwanankabandi, whose parents and eleven siblings were murdered. “What can you mitigate? The number of victims? The methods of hacking? The killers’ laughter? Delivering justice would mean killing the killers. But that would be like another genocide… Killing or punishing the guilty in some suitable way: impossible. Pardoning them: unthinkable. Being just is inhuman.” Mwanankabandi has encapsulated, quite perfectly, the conundrum of genocide: it ridicules the normal categories of crime and punishment upon which civilizations, and human sanity, depend.

A profound lack of trust in the world—the defining characteristic of Améry’s post-Auschwitz existence—has seeped into the Rwandan hills. “Life betrayed me,” says Claudine Kayitesi, a survivor who now cares for orphans of the genocide. “To be betrayed by our neighbors, by the authorities, by the whites—that is a staggering blow…. But to be betrayed by life…who can bear that?” The “natural” balm of time is not working its magic, at least for the survivors; even some of those who have built new lives, which include remarriage and children, are staggering through the world: baffled and devastated, not to mention poor and ill. Asks Innocent Rwililiza, a teacher whose first wife and young son were murdered, and who has worked as Hatzfeld’s translator, “Why do we, who ran [from the killers] so hard, find ourselves falling behind as also-rans? With our psychological problems, our meager crops, and our losses?… Those are questions that humiliate my deepest being… My character truly has been broken.” And while the perpetrators blithely talk of redemption, resumption, and their hopes for the future, the genocide is a shattering rupture for the victims: it defines their lives, yet is utterly incomprehensible. As Sylvie Umubyeyi told Hatzfeld in his first Rwandan book, Into the Quick of Life: “In calm moments, I think about the genocide…so as to know where to put it in my life, but I can find no place. I simply mean that it is beyond the human.” It is clear from Hatzfeld’s latest book—as it is from Améry’s work—that what we might call this paradox of non-understanding is, for the victims, immutable.

Many Westerners know the number of people killed in the Rwandan genocide (approximately eight hundred thousand) and the brevity of the event (approximately one hundred days). But the pitiless sadism—unleashed from reason and politics, and circumventing all theories—that was visited upon the victims remains less known. Parents saw their children smashed; children saw their mothers gang-raped; pregnant women had their babies sliced from their wombs before both were hacked to death. Victims sometimes begged—or paid—to be killed quickly, rather than have their limbs chopped off over a series of days and slowly bleed to death. (In Machete Season, the killers repeatedly and unapologetically explain to Haztfeld that the genocide was both hard work and good fun. “The blast of music never stopped,” Élie Miginge recalled. “Basically, we didn’t give a hoot…as long as we knew the killing was continuing everywhere without a snag. Poor people seemed at ease, the rich seemed cheerful, the future promised us good times.”)

Some Tutsis fled to the marshes, where they survived for weeks (if they survived) in an unfathomable hell: hunted, naked, wounded, starving, surrounded by piles of the dying as they vomited, bled, weeped, and moaned. “We were zeroes in rags,” a survivor named Médiatrice tells Hatzfeld. “In the forest, we behaved like crazy people.” Eugénie Kayierere says, “We felt already among the dead. We were no longer completely human anymore.” Normal thoughts, normal feelings, could not be summoned: “I no longer had enough intelligence for sadness,” Francine Niyitegeka explains: a pithier description than Améry’s of how human consciousness is destroyed. Upon discovering these survivors, the RPF army, known as the inkotanyi (“the invincibles”), reacted much the way the Allied troops did when they came upon the Nazi camps. “When the inkotanyi saw us finally creep out like mud beggars, they were stunned…as though they were wondering whether we were actually still human,” Niyitegeka remembers. “Our gauntness and stench disturbed them. It was a disgusting situation, but they tried to show us the utmost respect… They were clearly having trouble believing all this.”

The inability to believe—or understand—this kind of wild violence, inflicted on utterly helpless people, is not confined to the Rwandan victims or their rescuers. For Améry, torture was the paradigm of such cruelty—and the necessary model for the concentration camps. Torture creates a kind of anti-world in which the torturer comes “to realize his own total sovereignty” precisely by “negating his fellow man… In the world of torture man exists only by ruining the other person who stands before him.” Still, even Améry was stumped by this viciousness: “Above all,” he wrote, the Nazis “tortured because they were torturers.”

The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.

Primo Levi—who knew Améry briefly in Auschwitz—called this savagery “useless violence”: “a deliberate creation of pain that was an end in itself.” This kind of brutality does not aim to subdue or conquer—that has already been accomplished—nor to wrest political power from the victims, since they have none. It exists as a kind of “pure” sadism, divorced from political ends; it is “a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous.” It aims to transform the victims, prior to their deaths, into something that both they and their tormentors no longer recognize as human—perhaps, Levi proposed, so that the perpetrators can feel less guilt. (Adalbert Munzigura seems to confirm Levi’s premise: “The insults were invigorating, made the job easier,” he explained to Hatzfeld. “The perpetrators felt more comfortable insulting and hitting crawlers in rags than properly upright people.”) The distinguishing mark of useless violence—which Levi considered a kind of insanity—is the relentless, gratuitous infliction of humiliation and torment, and the transformation of human beings into degraded objects.

No group of Rwandans—perhaps no contemporary group of people in the world—epitomize this kind of suffering more than the Tutsi women who were raped and gang-raped during the genocide. Numbers are hard to come by, since many of these women have remained silent, but Human Rights Watch estimates that up to half a million women were raped. Seventy percent of those who survived are HIV-positive, according to UNICEF, and it is thought that ten thousand to twenty-five thousand children were born of these rapes. Their mothers are often ostracized by their communities and live, therefore, in marginalization and immiseration (some have been forced to turn to prostitution); the children are reviled by other Tutsis as “children of bad memories,” “children of hate,” or “little killers.”

In 2006, the Israeli photographer Jonathan Torgovnik traveled to Rwanda and interviewed thirty of these women in their homes; for many, it was the first time they had spoken of their travails. (Talking was difficult but, as a woman named Beata explained, “I think keeping quiet breaks me more.”) His photographs of these mothers and children are hard to look at and hard to look away from. The bright colors of the women’s clothes and the lush greenery of the surrounding flora explode; there is beauty here, and life. And yet the beauty and life seem to mock the photographs’ human subjects, who look, somehow, frozen in their sorrow. Torgovnik’s photographs resonate with silence, as if the pain they document is beyond lamentation.

Reading their testimonies, it is hard to know how these women survived. Many were passed, for weeks, from man to man, and were raped continuously. They were raped until they bled, until they passed out, until they could not move or walk or talk; often they were forced to witness murders of others in between the rapes. Some were beaten and clubbed; or had nails driven into their bodies or their teeth knocked out; or were forced to drink stones, or urine, or the blood of their families; or had corn stems, wood, or sharp metal shoved into their vaginas. Some begged to be killed; many more contemplated killing themselves (“I…didn’t have money to buy a rope,” Esperance explains) or, later, their infants. Many of the rape victims were young teenagers at the time of the genocide, which means that they were in their late twenties or early thirties when Torgovnik photographed them; it is a shock to realize this, for some now look like old women. Equally shocking is the preternaturally aged, worried solemnity of their children, which refutes everything we like to associate with childhood.

For these women (who are identified only by their first names), the fathers of their children were not only their rapists but also, often, the killers of their families. Needless to say, the women’s emotions are a complicated maelstrom, at which Torgovnik’s interviews can only hint. “There is no reason whatsoever for me to love this girl,” a woman named Marie says of her daughter, Mary. (Marie is the only woman Torgovnik photographs whose eyes fill with tears.) “She reminds me of…the first rape and the second rape and all the rapes that followed… I can’t say that I love her, but I can’t say that I hate her either.” Yvette recalls: “After around six months, I thought I was probably pregnant. This is when I started wishing to die… But I feared suicide and thought instead that I should give birth to that kid and kill it. But…he was so beautiful that I developed love immediately.” Her son, Isaac, who is barefoot and wears a torn shirt, stares at us: he has beautiful almond-shaped eyes, the slightest furrow on his brow, and not a hint of a smile. A woman named Winnie explains of her daughter, Athanse: “I love her so much, even more so because she is the result of suffering.” But Isabelle, mother of Jean-Paul, says, “I feel trauma every time I look at this boy… I regret that I didn’t die in the genocide.” Some of these women grapple not with their hatred per se, but with where to place it. “They say we are leftovers of the militia’s sexual appetite,” Delphine says. “And whenever I think about it, I hate myself.” Philomena says, more simply, “For a long time, I really hated God.”

The wonderful thing—if there is any wonderful thing—that emerges from these photographs and interviews is the stubborn singularity of each woman. Despite their shared history of horror—and despite the génocidaires’ attempt to kill their human-ness—each has defiantly remained an individual. And each struggles, in her own way, with how she and her children might face the future. (“Be friendly. Love one another,” advises Josephine, somewhat miraculously.) Yet in another, decidedly un-wonderful sense, all these women are the sisters of Améry. In their incomprehension, their shame, their scars, their losses, their dislocation, their impotent fury, their bleak loneliness, their irretrievable lack of trust… The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.

“Useless violence” is, I fear, the distinguishing characteristic of many of today’s worst conflicts: think of the widespread use of amputation in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, of the child slaves of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, of the rape epidemics in Darfur and Congo. (In the latter, vaginal mutilation after rape has become widespread, if not uniform; Hatzfeld has reported that each militia has its own “trademark style” of rape.) In the post-Cold War era, as many wars have become less ideological, these hideous attacks on women and children—the world’s most helpless people—have surged. Such cruelty inspires revulsion, as it should; but often our reactions stop at that, whether out of indifference, shock, bewilderment, or shame. “It is astonishing that the world is not taking more action in this region,” Torgovnik writes. It is a sentiment, I am sure, that Jean Améry would have embraced, had he still been capable of astonishment.

Linfield80x100.jpgSusie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. The Cruel Radiance, her book on photography and political violence, will be published this fall.

**Works discussed in this essay:**

At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities by Jean Améry, translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).

The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide—The Survivors Speak by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Gerry Feehily (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2005).

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage International, 1989).

Intended Consequences: Rwandan children Born of rape by Jonathan Torgovnik (New York: Aperture, 2009).

Jonathan Torgovnik has established Foundation Rwanda to help the rape survivors of the genocide and their children; information can be found at

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

24 Comments on “Living with the Enemy

  1. It was a trailer of ‘Hotel Rwanda’that i saw which pushed me into reading this long yet eye-opener of an essay.The plight of the victims has left a scar on my heart,if not burnt a hole.I am shocked how humans can commit such dastardly acts on fellow humans.When i think of it,no person i have seen would be capable of committing such an act,and not even the people i dont know.This feeling of optimism in their humanness stems from the fact that the place were i live,Bangalore is peace loving even though there are a few lumpen goons here and there trying to disturb the tranquility of my city.

    I believe that humans do not have as cruel a disposition as to insert sharp metal objects into the reproductive organ of women,as you describe in your article.It is a result of that single human who has spread hate among other gullible humans.Yet it is not too optimistic to think that these very same perpetrators of violence would change their minds looking at the sufferings and torments of victims.The brutality inflicted upon the millions of hapless people ,in my argument,is not a human behaviour.Yet i cannot fathom,what sort of cruel mind would commit such an ct.

  2. As I read, the world went quiet, and I felt a holyness descend upon all this. I am beyond tears, beyond anger, beyond any emotion except to stare into space, in wonder at how human can do thus to human. I have no answer, only deep love for all who were brought to such existence, and for those who could not only contemplate but carry out such monstrous acts.

    I reach out to embrace those who can not be soothed. I am beside myself with ineffectual offerings of empathy.

  3. Ms Linfeld is wrong.

    The language of victimhood is dis-empowering. It tells survivors that they cannot move beyond what others have done to them, that they are defined by the actions of others, victims forever more. It also obscures that the perpetrator of violence, even genocide is also a victim, is dehumanised by his actions far more profoundly than those he acts against.

    Reconciliation is precisely about empowering the survivors, and dead of violence, because it clothes with sufferers with status of those who are not defined by the actions of another.

    Claims that reconciliation is another form of torture are of course far more useful in advancing various agenda’s, especially agenda’s in the Western world in which Africans are proxies for various political positions, feminism, Zionism and so on. They reflect a narrow Western moral calculus in which a purported champion of victims makes a claim that individual sufferers are the only people whose interests are stake.

    But those of us who live in Africa, who can retreat to comfortable bourgeoisie lives know that there are the interests of many more people at stake, including succeeding generations. If conflicts are not peacefully ended then future generations have no hope. If ethnic violence is embedded in a culture forever by because there is no way to resolve claims and counter-claims of victimisation, then more war and more genocide is assured.

    Rejecting reconciliation may lay claim to some type of moral purity, but ultimately it reflects the language of the vendetta, the blood feud, that nothing can ever assuage the wrong.

    Nothing can undone the evil deed, but survivors and surviving communities can have a hopeful future, or be trapped in the past.

  4. The comment that the perpetrator is more dehumanized than the victim is one of the most disgusting things I have read in a very long time. Andrew should be deeply ashamed of himself. The man with the machete lopping off limbs does not suffer as much as those he hacks to pieces and rapes, by definition.

  5. The article does not reject ‘reconciliation’. It examines what this means to, and contrasts the different experience of victims and aggressors in the process of it, so people like Andrew and his “retreat to comfortable bourgeoisie lives” might learn something.

    If I find anything to disagree with in the article it is the approach to Germany. Germany has come as close as a nation and government can come to “reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation”.

    But what way forward for Israel and Palestine? Can they both scrupulously revisit the years of barbarism and reject everything, but absolutely everything accomplished?

  6. What recommends reconciliation to us is that it ennobles suffering by giving the sufferer a mission beyond the capacity of anyone who has not suffered similarly. Only the sufferer has the moral authority to restore community. Recognizing this, they can see a way back to the broken social contract. Or… they can feed the gnawing worm of resentment.

    Personally, I don’t see much value in Amery’s approach, even though he clearly grasps what it means to live with torture. There is a glimmer of truth in his insistence on a moral cleansing of the perpetrator, which would have some effect towards restoring the torn filament of civilization to both victims and perpetrators and would channel some of the rage that might otherwise find outlet in ethnic cleansing. But his perspective is too invested in resentment.

  7. I lived for a little while, in a part of Croatia that suffered a great deal from the war in former Yugoslavia. Talking with people, there was, indeed, little forgiveness for those (Serbs, especially) who had brutally murdered and raped families and friends. Though they didn’t articulate it as well as he did, their attitude was similar to that of Amery (Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Obscenity of Understanding’ also springs to mind). There was a widespread fear (well-founded, I believe) that “justice” would never be done regarding this time, and that therefore it would complete the injustice if they somehow forgave or forgot. This article does a great job of showing how silly the Western talk of “forgiveness” is when we’ve never had to forgive anything on this level before, insulated from tragedy, as we are, by much wealth. Yet I think some who have commented above are absolutely correct–persistently refusing to forgive (when given the choice) seems to likewise accomplish no justice whatsoever. I am SURE, had my family been raped and murdered in the manner described above (or any other manner) I would be quite unable to forgive, barring some kind of miracle. That is one thing, and I have nothing to say against those who cannot bring themselves to forgive. But propagating a philosophy (as Amery does) advocating non-forgiveness is quite another thing, and it is dangerous, and it reinforces the resentment–makes it into a doctrine, and leaves no room for such a miracle.

    I wonder if Amery remembers that the Holocaust, in part, arose as a result of the punitive measures taken against Germany at the end of WWI, when the rest of us were so intent on punishing them for the toll the war had taken on our own children? And I wonder if he realizes that, in places like Croatia, the unofficial doctrine of unforgiveness is at least as cruel as forgiveness, accumulating in hearts and keeping people not only from reconciling with those who destroyed their families, but, gradually, of those who do them lesser and lesser wrongs. Unforgiveness on a grand scale breeds unforgiveness on a local scale as well. One of my friends there, who had to live in her basement with her family during the war (she was eight, I think), and lost relatives to war and post-war bitterness, recently married a Serbian man. Her father has stopped speaking to her, naturally. She is grieved by that, but she is happy.

  8. Many ‘liberals’ attempt to repudiate revenge as a rationale for the punishment of those convicted of crime. But revenge coexists with, and the rationale for punishment is overdetermined by, a complex of reasons, justifications, social logic, and values. There is no place here to attempt to balance and reconcile the purposes of criminal jurisprudence and retribution. In ‘isolated’ cases within a normatively functioning society, a person who, for example, methodically murders children for pleasure (to put it simply) with no evidence of remorse presents a case, not merely for lengthy incarceration, but for capital punishment. (Surely there are arguments both for and against the latter in general, but that is after the fact of contemplating the scale of consequences deserved – not only by bad acts, but by the necessary character behind such acts.)

    So, is a grown man who enthusiastically uses a knife to cut off the limbs of helpless other human beings; who does so as a matter of method, habit, even driven by pleasure and satisfaction; who does so pursuant to a collective policy – to subdue those despised and inferior others; who does so repeatedly without any action based on normative human mores to resist, repudiate, or prevent such evil; who does so with no actual remorse, followed by no actual repentance – does such a person humanly deserve to continue life in tranquil society with no grave consequences to himself – no severe punishment, not even a term of years in prison? Indeed, is there no balance which justly and reasonably concludes that such a person ought not to live; in other words, upon being duly convicted of his crimes, should be executed?

    Does it matter that there may be multiple determinations – that he was mistreated by his father, or by his superior authorities – as if that would not only fully explain the torture he perpetrated but counterbalance it in the same order of magnitude as the depth of pain, injury and loss of those whose suffering he caused, such that he ought to be let free of any traditional punishment? That may not be the articulated reasoning of ‘reconciliation’ advocates such as Andrew above, but is it not the material fact which succeeds such reasoning? What I have articulated is merely a different perspective – one which holds open the ‘process of reconciliation’ to inquiry which needs assertion – just as the far more articulate words in the article above, including those of Ame/ry so powerfully assert. As for ‘revenge’, to put it differently: is it not precisely the nature of the existential consciousness of those brutally wronged which belies, as shown in the ambient superficiality, hypocrisy, and socially convenient mendacity of any manifestation of conscientiousness on the part of the torturers, murders and rapists discussed above, the emptiness of such instituted ‘reconcilation’ and the remaining chasm of injustice, imbalance, and continuing societal damage to mores on a level shared by all functioning human societies?

  9. Amery’s views are very interesting indeed. The usual view of how to deal with perpetrators of crimes is either punishment or forgiveness. Rarely is there any talk of the guilty parties having to acknowledge their crimes and make amends (not just symbolic amends but actual ones), which seems to me to be the only correct view to address the needs of the victims.

    I myself have only suffered the most trivial injustices (being bullied, scapegoated and the like), but all I ever wanted was for the people who wronged me to admit to what they had done and to make me whole. On both a personal and societal level, I don’t place much value in punishments (when some teenagers broke into my house I let them go because I thought the criminal justice system would punish them too severely), and I am not interested in forgiving those who do not deserve forgiveness. I only want criminals to be acknowledged as such and for them to acknowledge their actions themselves. I think this may be a gut instinct that applies to both the most trivial and the most appalling of crimes. Why is that strategy almost never adopted?

  10. This essay and associated commentary does not address a plausible, but hopeless conjecture: genocidal behavior is encoded in the human genotype, and will be expressed in the phenotype in response to the appropriate stimulus. The evolutionary advantage conferred upon the human species by this characteristic may be related to population regulation.

    …vote with your feet…

    “…Don’t Follow Leaders,

    Watch the Parking Meters…”

  11. If you have killed my family, then I can in theory forgive you for my own suffering that results; but I do not have the authority to forgive you for the suffering that you visited upon my murdered parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and children. The only people who have the authority to forgive the genocidaires for their genocide are precisely those whose voices the genocidaires forever stilled. Only the stilled voice can forgive the stilling. That is how the act of genocide creates itself as unforgivable. This unforgivability is rooted in the act itself of the genocidaire, and not the onlooker who has accidentally been made to survive. That unforgivability is not, and should not be made to appear to be, the survivor’s burden to relieve.

  12. I am practicing yoga in Romania, in a school named MISA. In 2004, after 10 years of regular media lynching, the officials mounted a coup against us. Ashrams were stormed by the police and they paraded us on TV, under the threat of guns, on wild accusations made to enrage the public more (drugs, guns, pedofilia, etc, everything that could enrage the public). As the General Prosecutor of Romania stated, it was the biggest romanian police campaign ever. Three of accusations that could be proved with finds were quietly redrawn after 3 days of fruitless search, but the effect on the public was made.

    The spiritual leader, Gregorian Bivolaru, had to flee the country and was given political asylum in Sweden, on the grounds that the file made against him by the romanian prosecutors proved by itself that he could not have a just trial in Romania.

    The two trials for accusations made up by the authorities continued in Romania. After 6 years, one of them has finished with a “not guilty” verdict. The other one will take probably more than 10 years. Until the memory will die by itself so that authorities could muster the power to recognise that all the accusations were made-up at the order of the corrupt prime-minister who wanted popularity before ellections.

    (he lost them, even while controlling of all the private and public media)

    When the police came to break our meeting of protest, we raised our hands in the air to show we are unnarmed and the comentators on TV shouted that this is was an aggresive gesture on our part.

    But when the police attacked us viciously when the meeting ended and most of us already left, the jurnalists turned their TV-cameras away and filmed the trees so that nothing from it could accidentally appear on TV,

    I’m afraid that the next genocide will be sparked by the media, fueled by the media, and it’s effects hidden by the media. The media is able to create hate against a minority, to invent wild accusations, to deny the victim’s right to reply and to hide the abuses and even the crimes under a smirk of self-righteousness.

  13. Beautiful article. I believe that reconciliation is an oppressor’s tool offered to its victims that tends to push victims to believe and think on the lines that they can never get justice but they can halt their misery by doing ‘justice’ with the oppressors who have committed untold and countless crimes against them.

  14. “..the perpetrator of violence…is dehumanised by his actions far more profoundly than those he acts against.”

    The perpetrator is dehumanised by acting in an inhumane way. The victim suffers as a human being.

  15. Ms. Linfield does not delineate forms or types of reconciliation, nor does she treat survivor’s voices fairly; only selectively choosing quotes. The overarching post-genocide narrative in Rwanda is reconciliation through unity. Opinions on this vary across the spectrum, with many being stifled by the government of Rwanda.

    This subject matter is incredibly serious and deserves the nuanced treatment that Ms. Linfield fails to give it.

  16. I wonder how this article can examine the process of reconciliation in Africa without at least paying notice to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought about in South Africa at the end of apartheid. Given the author’s insistence that there is some kind of uniquely African form of justice I wonder why the lessons of other African nations did not make the cut.

  17. I think an important point is being missed here. Namely that reconciliation is a practical matter. Especially in places like Rwanda where the perpetrator group and the victim group live in such intimate proximity. Actually, it is a vital necessity following any genocide where the survivors do not have an alternative place to move to – an “israel”.

    But reconciliation is not the moral thing to do, reconciliation does not equal justice. There is no justice after genocide – no matter how many truth commissions, hague tribunals or humanitarian missions you set up. And there is no help for torture victims either. That’s what makes war crimes so abominable. If there was a way to “fix it”, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

    And reconciliation is not a success story in the making, it is just a way to go on. even if you don’t want to, even if you’d rather be dead. The most reconciliation as I understand it and as I believe is possible from the perspective of the survivor, the most it can hope to achieve is Rwandan rape victims not killing their children. She will never forgive her rapists, she might never be able to love the child, but she won’t kill it. There’s perhaps some warped poetic justice in it: that despite all efforts to dehumanise the victim, she has managed to retain her humanity, she cannot bring herself to harm an innocent being.

  18. I think an important point has been lost in this post-article discussion. It is all too easy for outsiders to come in and tell victims that they must forgive and to create a reconciliation process. It is easy for outsiders to comment on the necessity for forgiveness and the importance of “moving on.”

    It’s so easy…if nothing like it has happened to you.

    I had much stolen from me as a child, and by those who were supposed to protect me, no less. I live every day with them; I cannot escape them. Their defiant attitudes and continuing denials still chip away tiny pieces of my soul.

    Those around me urge: forgive, forgive, forgive

    Don’t you think I want to forgive? Over and over, I’ve prayed for it. I’ve begged God to show me how. I’ve read books and talked to counselors. I’ve tried to make it happen by sheer force of will.

    But the pain is still there. My life is still broken. Every day I still grieve for what I lost.

    No matter how much I work to change or move on, a little part of me will always be broken.

    And to be blithely urged to forgive, to be scolded that I cannot so readily do so, pours salt in an unhealed wound.

    It’s easy to advise victims…if you yourself have never been one.

  19. I like this response. It is honest. There’s no prettying up of the instinct for revenge here. No ointmental reasonings to make the urge feel civilized and good about itself (reconciliation does not equal justice; forgiveness isn’t possible; to ask people to forgive is hypocritical, etc…). Bravo! for having the courage to just say it.

  20. Given the issues raised by Amery — issues that ought to be obvious to anyone with a lick of sense and a gram of empathy — it is incredible that we continue to tolerate torture as an instrument of national policy (oh, yes, we do) and suicidal that we are not holding responsible those who ordered it and those who carried it out.

    It would take only one modern-day Amery to cause enormous loss of life in the U.S., with cataclysmic consequences for our own social order … and yet we pursue — and even presume to use the “rule of law” in Guantanamo kangaroo courts to defend — a policy that creates more Amerys every day.

  21. The response of many of the readers is appalling. They write of a reasoned and nuanced response to deeds that are totally unreasoned, devoid of nuance[not much balance or subtlety in hacking off limbs or gang raping women] and ultimately and properly, unforgivable. If a loved one of mine was raped, murdered, tortured, I would never forgive the perpetrator and god help him if I ever got my hands on him. On the other hand I don’t believe in capital punishment per se. The state should never have the power to execute it’s citizens. The only proper punishment is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

    If, however, the perpetrator was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but then pardoned, I would indeed seek total,personal revenge on the murderer. There is a certain line that should never be crossed, but if you cross it you’ve lost your right to live freely in society.

    I have one final thought for the people who commit atrocities like those referred to in the article: may they rot in hell.

    Finally, this article by Ms. Linfield is beautifully written and filled with intelligence and thoughtfulness. A rare thing indeed. I look forward to reading her other work.

  22. Thank you for your comments, Priscilla.

    I was watching a movie. A young girl was raped, bludgeoned and left to die in the woods. This all happened within the first minute of the movie. As the camera moved further away from her broken body, the last image of her was from far overhead – her body blending in with the foliage.

    The next 90 minutes focused on everyone but the victim – the perpetrator, the investigators, the justice seekers, etc. The girl seemed mostly forgotten.

    I thought: “That’s it!! That’s what it feels like!”

    People don’t want to “dwell” on the pain.

    If you manage to survive, you make the people around you uncomfortable: “Don’t be a victim! Why do you keep hanging onto this?!”

    As if it’s a choice.

    Thank you to Ms. Linfield for her beautiful, thoughtful writing.

    Debra Healy

  23. I’ve read multiple responses where the writer would claim it was okay to pay back these ‘devils’ at triple the cost. For what reason? You’d be just as bad as them, furthering the endless cycle of violence.

    If we’re going to say violence is a natural behavior, then there’s nothing to do BUT look at the events objectively, as territorial pissing more than thought out brutality. Suffering is a term invented by those too weak to protect themselves. As you become more aware of yourself and others, you invent new ways to ‘suffer.’ New ways to see how you’re not getting what the majority (to you) gets, whether that be money or clothes or physical safety.

    If you are going to bring the illogical world of emotions and feelings and ‘right vs. wrong’ into the mix, then you can’t be a hypocrite, picking and choosing your morals at a whim. Stick to your guns or hang up your holster. It’s that simple.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *