Collective Atonement

"When it came to light in 1988 that the cruiser Vincennes had shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 civilian passengers onboard, including thirty-eight non-Iranians and sixty-six children, then-vice president Bush stated, 'I don't care what the facts are. I will never apologize for the American people.'

"Elise Boulding, the Quaker sociologist and pioneer of peace and conflict studies, has written, 'Failure to grieve over its shortcomings is a serious problem for the United States and contribute[s] to anti-American attitudes in the rest of the world.' This is a soul-damaging failure; an explicit intention of this volume — or at least my main purpose for contributing to it — is to address just this problem. One does not have to read far into Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, not to mention almost anything by Noam Chomsky, to understand that this nation has a large backload of negative karma (or in more native terms, the residue of the law that 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap'). Even if one does not accept the operation of such a principle, it is a simple though often conveniently forgotten fact that victims don't like being victimized and tend to fight back when they get the chance. Especially if those who hurt them do not apologize.

"There are millions of Americans today who though they may never read the likes of Zinn or Chomsky, are dimly aware that as a nation we have inherited a backlog of debt — toward Native Americans whom we found here, and the Native Africans we dragged here, just to mention two glaring examples. I among others strongly believe that America cannot go forward until we find some way to face and overcome this legacy; in a word, to atone for it.

"Yet — and this is the key point — it is emotionally very difficult for nearly anyone to confront his or her guilt. Most modern reformers, in their understandable outrage, do not understand this. Gandhi understood it to the core. As the great British historian Arnold Toynbee said, 'He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India, but he made it possible for us to leave without rancor and without humiliation' (emphasis added).

"A large part of Gandhi's power lay in his ability to see the wrongdoings of his opponents outside a moral framework, to take them out of the domain of morality and 'judgmentalism.' It followed from his principle, fundamental to nonviolence, to separate the doer from the deed or, as we would say, the sinner from the sin. It enabled him to resist wrongdoing all the more effectively, for it made it possible, as Toynbee points out, for the wrongdoers themselves to own responsibility for their actions without stigmatizing themselves as wrongdoers — exactly what Vice President Bush and the Americans who followed him were not courageous enough to do.

"Pride stands in the way of atonement; but, I will argue, shame is not the antidote to that pride. What is needed is restitution. The offender must be made aware that what he did or is doing is wrong, but simultaneously he must be helped to see that he can atone for it. A most dramatic case (to my knowledge not historical though certainly characteristic) is in one of the final scenes of Gandhi, where the Mahatma tells a guilt-stricken Hindu who has killed a Muslim child in revenge for the murder of his own son, 'I know a way out of hell,' namely, to adopt an orphaned child about the same age as his own son, 'but be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as such.'

"To make something like this work, we must be able to see a torturer as a person who has carried out torture, not as a 'torturer' — that is, torture must be something he did, not something he is. We who would nurse America or anyone else free from its hurtful past must always be aware of this.

"As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have recently argued, Americans today are on the whole so saturated with gloom and doom — the rising threat of terrorism, global climate change, collapsing economies — that more evidence of their guilt will only drive them deeper into the kind of denial that made George H. W. Bush popular — a denial that leads to counteraccusations and other conflict-exacerbating behaviors. All the more reason that bringing up the burden of moral guilt without simultaneously showing a path to concrete restitution for that guilt will be counterproductive."