Coming to Terms with a Troubled Past
The recent brief jailing and interrogation of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with the murder of a Northern Ireland woman 42 years ago was a flashback to the Troubles in Ulster—which are now far enough in the past that they are beyond the living memory of many younger observers and analysts who ordinarily pay close attention to communal conflict and strife. This case also illustrates a more general problem not limited to Northern Ireland: how to deal with those who have participated in such strife by committing grave offenses (including, but not limited to, terrorism) against the lives and rights of others but have since moved on, along with their movements and their countries, to more peaceful and less offensive ways of doing business.
The dilemma is that simply to move beyond what is bygone leaves unsatisfied a felt need for justice to be served, but to serve it through punishment of people who have committed past offenses may undermine the very progress that has made more peaceful times possible. It may undermine the progress by taking out of action leaders who are among the few who can commit entire communities, or by perpetuating indefinitely a cycle of reprisal and retaliation in which each side in a conflict wants to get in the last lick. Having justice be done is important, but isn't it at least as important for those who might be punished, and the communities to which they belong, to transition to more peaceful, just and harmonious ways of pursuing their interests?
There is no good solution to the dilemma. Any formula will be a compromise that will only partially achieve each objective, and only partially satisfy almost anyone involved in a conflict. One criterion that nearly always ought to take precedence, however, is honesty. Regardless of how else offenses of the past are to be dealt with today, it is almost always best to uncover and acknowledge the truth about those offenses. In the case of Adams, there has not been honesty. He strongly denies involvement in the killing of Jean McConville; the police released him after questioning him about the case, and the rest of us do not have enough to go on to pass judgment about this murder. But Adams' longstanding contention that he is only a political leader who never was part of the IRA and any of its violent activities has never been plausible.
Sweeping truth about past activities under a rug is not a lasting solution. Lies are ultimately a flimsy foundation on which to build the trust necessary for a stable and peaceful political order. Moreover, a suppressed past is apt to bubble up unexpectedly in improbable ways and places. Resurrection of the McConville case and the possible involvement of Adams came about through an oral history compiled several years ago by researchers at Boston College.
A process exemplified by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission remains probably the best way to deal with the underlying dilemma. It is a process of bearing witness to all that happened in the past, and to overcome the legacy of past offenses through acknowledgment and amnesty, not by lifting a rug and sweeping dirt there. The South African process certainly had its critics and the shortcomings were apparent, but that is inevitable in a situation in which a less-than-perfect compromise is the very best one can hope for. Adams has expressed support for some sort of truth and reconciliation process, which is good, but he seems to have in mind an international body with little or no involvement by the Northern Ireland parties themselves, which would be insufficient.
Insofar as the South African process was successful, an important reason was that it did not exhibit any asymmetries in its purpose or its charter. Offenses committed by all the parties were subject to examination. Symmetry in this respect is important so that all parties involved in a conflict can have confidence that their pain will be uncovered and their narratives will be told. It is also important to dispel any erroneous asymmetries that the rest of us have accumulated over the years in our perceptions of the conflict—such as that only one side has terrorized the other—due to one side being better able than the other to propagandize us or to tug at our heartstrings.
These principles can be applied to several conflicts around the world in which different peoples have contested a piece of land. One that readily comes to mind of particular importance to the United States is the contest between Israelis and Palestinians.