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Comment > Columnists >

Forgiveness can be the only escape

Giles Fraser

by Giles Fraser

Posted: 01 Feb 2013 @ 12:15

PATRICK MAGEE killed Jo Berry's father on 12 October 1984. He was the notorious IRA Brighton bomber, she is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, former Tory MP for Enfield, Southgate. They were an unlikely pair to be mingling over the canapés in a smart Soho hotel.

The occasion was the first London screening of a new documentary film, Beyond Right and Wrong, made by Lekha Singh and Roger Spottiswoode, which examines a number of extraordinary stories of forgiveness in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the Middle East.

Some of it was almost unbearable to watch: the Rwandan woman whose five children were massacred in church is approached by their killer, who asks for forgiveness; the now-grown-up Irish schoolboy who was blinded by a rubber bullet meets the British soldier who fired the round; the Israeli and Palestinian families who meet, despite having all lost children in the conflict.

What particularly interested me was the title - surely a reference to Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil - and its disturbing implication that ethics and justice can take us only so far seems to me entirely correct. It is difficult for both ethics and justice to stray too far from the idea of proportionality. Justice has its scales, and the scales must be balanced. Punishment is not the only way in which the scales are supposedly balanced, but it is often the most viscerally attractive, especially to many victims.

But what proportionate response can ever balance out the loss of a child? And what sense of things properly answered for can break the cycle of retribution in such a way that a whole new future is possible? Forgiveness can feel much like betrayal, easily portrayed as allowing perpetrators a comparatively easy time.

But, for all the powerful and familiar rhetoric that forgiveness is a betrayal of the victims, the truth is than no amount of punishment can ever change the past. All there is to change is the future. And forgiveness - especially when understood in Girardian terms as non-retaliation - may well be the only way in which a different future can be wrestled from the hatreds of the past.

The body language between Berry and Magee was hardly warm and friendly. And she admitted to me that she sometimes stands on a beach in North Wales, and lets all her anger out by bashing stones against each other. But what is important is that she leaves all this potentially violent anger on the beach.

Forgiveness is psychologically complicated. But it remains the only basis for hope in many dark places of the world.

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