Reconciliation, Retaliation or Reparation

As people construct collective memories of victory and credit, loss and blame, they sometimes settle for monuments and other reminders that lean toward political positions on one side or the other of the us-them divide. More often, however, they activate one of three other logics: reconciliation, retaliation or reparation. Here is precisely where disagreement over the meaning of the past can drive societies toward social separation.

Reconciliation typically involves some ritual encounter followed by a declaration that bygones should be bygones. Two friends blame each other for some bad outcome, then a third friend persuades them to make up. The victor treats the vanquished generously, and the two combatants go off for a ceremonial drink. In the most spectacular version, a truth and reconciliation commission brings together victims and perpetrators from a great civil conflict, perpetrators confess their crimes in response to some guarantees of immunity and absolution, before participants ritually symbolize forgiving and forgetting. If the reconciliation routine works, the parties then get on with collaboration in new collective enterprises.

Advocates of reconciliation often make three arguments for public apologies followed by mutual commitment: catharsis, justice and expediency. Public discussion of past wrongs, goes the first line of reasoning, allows aggrieved people to stop grieving and wrongdoers to assuage their guilt. The justice argument fixes blame in the style of jail sentences, punitive damages and shaming ceremonies when the perpetrator shows remorse and commitment to better behavior. The expediency principle focuses on the future: Unresolved conflicts impede cooperation. So let’s agree on what happened and why, and then get on with life.

Collective retaliation, however, depends on a strict logic of tit for tat: You did us wrong, so you should suffer as badly. Where the line between perpetrators and victims is clear, collective retaliation has two advantages: It corresponds to an individual sense of justice that cuts across cultures and historical periods; and it involves a simple calculus—you stole our cow, we take your cow. But it also has two enormous disadvantages. It allows the rasher members of one side to score hero points by acting aggressively against vulnerable members of the other side. And it escalates easily, because members of a newly victimized side regularly interpret a retaliatory attack as disproportionate to the offense, and as a threat to their side’s credibility and honor. We know about escalation from legendary feuds between the Montagues and Capulets or the Hatfields and McCoys.

Indeed, without a firm stopping rule comparable to the clock’s running out in football— which is to say, in the absence of strong governments— ritual killing could continue for years. Blood feuds once disfigured large areas of southern Europe, for example. Remember that German generals Armin and Segestes were feuding in 9 C.E. over Armin’s capture of Segestes’s daughter. But starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, European governments either suppressed feuds or channeled them into judicial proceedings from which rulers could collect significant fines or confiscate property. In the Balkans, central governments rarely achieved that kind of control, so blood feuds continued to occur there until recently. Collective retaliation often causes long-lasting damage, and this has been so not only in southern Europe but also, for many years, in much of the Middle East.

Reparations follow a modified logic of tit for tat: You did us wrong, so you should compensate us proportionately. Along the way, you should apologize for doing us wrong. Discussing books on reparations in 2006, Times Literary Supplement critic David Lowenthal deplored the practice. Forgetting that U.S. President Ronald Reagan had apologized in 1988 to Japanese Americans the government had incarcerated during World War II, Lowenthal complained that:

The Age of Apology came to a head with 1990s contrition chic: Bill Clinton apologized for slavery, Tony Blair for the Irish Famine, the Pope for the Crusades, Australia declared a ‘National Sorry Day’ for past mistreatment of Aborigines, with little to show by way of present improvement. Posthumous mea culpas dispense cheap cheer. They show how venial are our own sins by comparison with our forebears’ crimes. Past sinners are excoriated for not thinking and acting as right-minded people do today. Censorious tracts name and shame perpetrators of history’s atrocities, demanding remorse and redress for victims’ heirs.

The complications start there, on both sides of the us-them boundary: Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? Do today’s descendants or relatives of victims deserve compensation for the victims’ losses? Do today’s descendants or relatives of perpetrators bear responsibility for the perpetrators’ evils? What counts as adequate compensation? How to compensate 9/11 families begins to look like a simple task compared to assigning reparations for losses that occurred generations ago.

Yet in recent years, demands for collective reparations have become mainstream in the United States and elsewhere. The sociologist John Torpey cites the confluence of two main factors to explain this: compensation to Jews and the State of Israel for the Holocaust, and the generalization of the practice to include compensation paid by states to groups that have suffered wrongs in both war and peace. “The spread of reparations”, Torpey concludes in Making Whole What Has Been Smashed (2006), “thus parallels the rise of human rights thinking, the emergence of substate groups and individuals as subjects of international law, and the juridification of politics in general.” Once one group successfully presses a claim for recognition of its victimization, other groups can follow the same path. Demands for reparations typically combine the principles of catharsis, justice and expediency. Substantial payments, in this view, allow victims to move past victimization and perpetrators to purge their guilt. Categories of people who have suffered call for just compensation that requires oppressors to feel some measure of the pain that they or their predecessors inflicted. Political organizers say that reparations will promote reconciliation and future collaboration.

No doubt these outcomes do sometimes occur. But reparations politics involves two great dangers: It provides great incentives for people, lawyers for one, to hoard rewards for themselves rather than redistribute them to genuine victims; and it reinforces us-them boundaries instead of dissolving them. When Native Americans receive compensation for past wrongs in the form of property rights, exemption from taxes and direct governmental subsidies, both scenarios come about. Lobbyists and lawyers make money as differences between Native Americans and other Americans sharpen.


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