Forgiveness, Forgetting, and Conceding Atrocities
Ethics was one of the areas I explored in a religious worldviews class I took couple years ago. Among other things assigned for class, we read a book which explored ethics in religion. Specifically, the book, The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, poses a question as to whether it is permitted to refuse forgiveness to a sincerely repentant malefactor. The story takes place in a concentration camp, where the author, Wiesenthal, was called by a dying Nazi soldier, Karl, to ask him for forgiveness for his crimes against Jews. Wiesenthal refused to grant Karl forgiveness by simply leaving him without saying a word. Later, remorse swept him; he questioned his decision from a religious as well as moral standpoints. Wiesenthal’s encounter with Karl sets up a parallel with an encounter I had with two American soldiers- Iraq vets. The book made me re-think my response to them, and revisit my moral guidelines.
I had a reunion gathering in New York City with friends from Iraq. An organization called Veterans’ Sanctuary visited us with two Iraq war veterans, who returned from Baghdad few months earlier. They wanted to share their experience in Baghdad in attempts to redeem for atrocities of war and ask forgiveness. The soldiers described how their respective units patrolled the streets of my city Baghdad, walked in houses and searched for alleged weapons, killed and tortured insurgents as well as civilians. They described how they could not differentiate between combatants and civilians because “Everybody is a target in times of war,” as one of them explained.
The soldiers sought forgiveness from my friends and I for their crimes against Iraqis during the 2003 war. They were talking about Baghdad by the time my friends and I arrived the interfaith organization. I voluntarily, yet anxiously, headed towards them to listen to what they had to say. “I was at a patrol one night,” Sergeant Mike talked about one of his patrol nights in Hay Al-Jamia’a neighborhood, where I used to live. He was on a mission to capture insurgents, “… I covered his head with a black plastic bag. I had to drag him to the Humvee, right in front of his children and family,” the Sergeant continued. I could literally visualize the incident for I had lived through similar incidents before. Standing there listening to him awakened feelings of anger, hatred, and repugnance. At that point, I could not listen to him anymore and I left immediately. I, later, asked the Veterans’ Sanctuary to leave the organization- the place where we were having a reunion. That night I could not sleep, and when I finally did, I had nightmares.
Nightmares of burning flesh and blood had haunted me for several weeks after the incident. This several-minute talk brought back many somber memories of the war. My home and country have been stolen from me, and the person who was in front of me contributed to this fact. I asked him to leave. That decision was not of consensus among my friends. Few of my friends contested, but the majority joined my camp.
This situation may not be identical to Wiesenthal and Karl’s, nonetheless is similar. According to The Sunflower, Simon was asked to listen to Karl’s story, “…I followed the Red Cross nurse into the building, in accordance with her instructions” (p. 23). I, on the other hand, willingly listened to Mike talking about his experience in Baghdad. While Simon was in a concentration camp, waiting for the day to be executed, I was home with my family and extended family, waiting for the moment a bomb “misses its target” and falls on us. Every day, we were expecting soldiers like Mike to break in and arrest my father, uncle, or even me; everyday we were expecting soldiers like Mike to break in and rape my mother, aunt or cousin. Baghdad on April of 2003 was, to a considerable extent, a large concentration camp: bombs were falling on military facilities as well as civilian neighborhoods and shrapnel were cutting bodies and ruining houses, cars, etc. indiscriminately. Nobody could leave the country because everything in motion was a target.
The aftermath has been even more deadly due to the security vacuum generated following the occupation. Long years of sectarian strife and armed militia killing, robbing, vandalizing whatever was on its way, were among many other reasons why I had to flee the country. I was living in Wiesenthal’s concentration camp! My education was suspended because in time of war nobody goes to school. I lost one year of my life due to the occupation. I lost family members, just like Wiesenthal. Those, among others, were the main reasons I left Mike and later asked him to leave. I could not listen to him given the fact that he expected forgiveness. I could not grant forgiveness to someone who made my people, family, and I live through hell every day of the four-week shock and awe campaign, and to a lesser extent, the aftermath hell. Forgiving him will neither bring my family members back nor it will rebuild my beloved country. While I very much do appreciate his sense of responsibility and accountability, but at the same, reserve the right to not forgive him.
Another reason why I did not forgive him was that my people back home who are still suffering from the aftermath would be ashamed of me. Forgiving him on behalf of those who died defending Iraq would be betraying them and bargaining their blood. Apart from that, I’m in no position to act as a religious figure or public representative of a ~27-million Iraqis who may or may not agree with my decision. Moreover, forgiving the sergeant may mean acknowledging the crimes and knowing that he will never be punished for them. I could not live with such a burden. Furthermore, if the two soldiers, or others, are sincerely repentant, then it is not my job to grant them forgiveness. It is God’s (if you believe in one), who will embrace them in his mercy. It is Him who they should seek forgiveness not their victims. I, by all means, still appreciate them as human beings and forgiving them is irrelevant to this fact.
I might share some of the biases that influenced Wiesenthal’s decision not to forgive Karl. Biases such as living in a war zone, knowing who is your perpetrator, and talking bluntly about bargaining the lives my people with alleviating the sufferings of one soldier. Cultural and ethnic cleansing cause so much pain especially when they are done indiscriminately and systematically. Similar to Wiesenthal, this incident still haunts me. I find myself asking the question of whether or not I did the right thing. At the end of the day, I treat people with my moral code not theirs, did I do the right thing?