BOSTON -- When I was young, I was taught a prayer that ended by asking "may we all know a just and everlasting peace." I repeated that prayer all through my childhood, both when there was a wishbone to break and when someone called for a silent moment.
I said it, as children will, half out of ritual and half out of superstition. But it was years before I really understood the complexity of this thought, the ways in which justice and peace were essential to each other and yet could conflict with each other.
It was years before I knew how the demand for justice could become vengeance in an unending conflict. How the desire for peace could suppress great injustice in a graveyard of pain.
A seasonal greeting
Now the words of this prayer come to mind at all sorts of moments, especially when peace on earth is a seasonal greeting. Not a reality.
In Africa, in what passes for hopeful news, great hordes of Hutus have been walking back home to Rwanda from Tanzania and Zaire.
But the other day in the newspaper there was a brief mention of a Tutsi woman standing by her house in a village when she saw a Hutu man walking back up the road. He was one of the men who had killed her husband.
How many does that make?
I wonder how many times this story will be repeated? In Rwanda, in the genocidal massacres of 1994, some 500,000 murders occurred, 250,000 rapes -- mostly by Hutus. How many murderers does that make? How many rapists? How many families of victims?
In our own country where we demand to know if a single sex offender has moved into the neighborhood, it's hard to imagine coexisting with such knowledge or suspicion of our neighbors. And yet without coexistence in Rwanda, we are told, this is an uneasy hiatus before the next wave of violence. And the next.
At the same time, the United Nations has set up a tribunal to investigate and punish those who have committed war crimes in Rwanda. But in a country decimated of lawyers and judges, justice is at best stalled; at worst riddled with retaliation. Some 88,000 Rwandans have been arrested for war crimes and held in primitive prisons. Some do not even know what they are charged with while others are the victims of property disputes.
And in Bosnia
The dilemmas are not that different in Bosnia where there are also war tribunals. There, old and distant ethnic enmities were stirred up into genocidal "cleansing," and murder and assault are fresh in the minds of parents of the dead and mothers of children created by rape.
Nor is it different from other times and places where the demand for justice and the desire for peace are locked like wrestlers who can't overcome and can't separate.
A just and everlasting peace? "Somehow justice is bound up with memory and not forgetting. But living together requires a certain suspension of memory," suggests Michael Sandel who teaches a course called "Justice" at Harvard.
"I suppose the question is whether there is a human sentiment somewhere between forgiveness, which is very difficult, too much to ask, and forgetfulness," he adds. "What makes these situations so morally complicated is that we don't want to encourage mass amnesia but neither do we want to encourage people to think all the time about the crimes their neighbors may have committed. If they do, there will be no living together."
In the real world we count on some mix of punishment, atonement and time to salve wounds. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, there was a great terror that the world would forget. It took a half-century for the Japanese to acknowledge and atone for the wrongs they committed to Korean "comfort women."
South African reconciliation
Today, South Africa is struggling to mediate the claims of peace and justice in the wake of the humans-rights abuses of apartheid. Bishop Tutu now presides over something named the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- a body that can grant amnesty to those on both sides who will publicly admit their crimes.
But as the hearings go on, it's not clear if people can accept the notion that confessed killers may go free -- even for the sake of reconciliation.
As for Rwanda where the wounds are still fresh? On a December morning, a young Tutsi mother whose husband was killed spoke to the Boston Globe's Elizabeth Neuffer in two exhausted voices that describe the internal conflicts.
"I am so angry. I want them brought to justice," she said of her husband's murderers. And then later she sighed, "Ah, you have no idea how much I want just to forget."
Sometimes it seems in a world that is as war-weary as ours, all there is to offer such a woman is a prayer.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/20/96