Faulting No-Fault Forgiveness
Shortly after the victims of the schoolyard snipers in Littleton, Colorado, and Taber, Alberta were laid to rest, members of the community, or at least those members that routinely present themselves to the media, indicated their readiness to forgive the murderers.
The spasms of no-fault forgiveness, however, are more a distillation of the mass culture than a reflection of any real religious sensibility. In Littleton, the first sign of people adrift in a moral twilight zone was the erection, by a local carpenter, of two symbolic crosses for the killers alongside their victims. "They too had a mom and a dad," preached the carpenter. Ditto for Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, Canada's notorious sex slayers. Does the fact these sociopaths were born of man and woman entitle them to share a moral plateau with their victims? Evidently that is the case.
The father of a murdered boy, who promptly uprooted and destroyed the crosses "raised in memory of the two teenage gunmen," was clearly anti-hero of this particular news story. The real heroes were the bevy of fresh-faced youths and the attendant adults who, following the carpenter's example, spoke of forgiveness. The rationale for instant clemency? "Like, the killers were victims too," and the ubiquitous chant, "We all need to heal."
If in Littleton the killers were embraced, in Taber the moral tempo was not much different. The atmosphere was muted, tempered by Canadian gentility, but it had the same stark elements of moral deconstruction. "Close friends of the 14-year-old boy charged...in the fatal shooting" swore fealty to their friend, and expressed the view that the bullying their friend had endured was a license to kill. Their sentiments were reiterated by the poor Reverend Dale Lang, whose son Jason died at the hands of the killer.
In so charitably forgiving and embracing killers, well-meaning individuals and clergy are not only usurping the power of the God whose mercy they claim to represent, but are showing religious doctrinal failure. The Jewish perspective pivots on the "passion for justice," wrote my father and author of the International Jewish Encyclopedia, Rabbi B. Isaacson. Although justice has to be tempered by love and mercy, justice always precedes--and is a prerequisite for--mercy.
This is extremely lucid, because mercy without justice is no mercy at all. By forgiving a killer before he has made amends and paid for his crime, injustice is done to the victim, to society, and, inadvertently, to the killer for whom redemption can be achieved only by facing the consequences of his actions. To place the memory of a killer posthumously on the same moral plane as his victim is to imperil society, since, with each easy act of expiation, murder becomes a little less abhorrent.
Punishment is first and foremost a public declaration of those values we wish to uphold.
A Jew is not obliged to forgive a transgressor unless that transgressor has ceased his harmful actions, compensated the victim for damages, and asked for forgiveness. This is both ethically elegant and psychologically smart. It makes the process of asking for and extending forgiveness meaningful, lending it social imprimatur. It also upholds the notion of right and wrong. Further, it doesn't force the psychologically incongruous emotion of compassion for someone who has murdered, raped or committed some other heinous act. One can forgive but one is not obligated to. What one is obliged to do is seek justice.
In their Orthodoxy column of July 1998, Ted and Virginia Byfield of the "BC Report," imply that the Christian doctrine is very similar to the Jewish one. Instant expiation flows more from the values of the 1960s than any doctrinal Christian values. According to the Byfields, Christian forgiveness is contingent on the sinner's repentance, and can be granted only by the one sinned against, and not by the various proxies-of-popularity. "The corollary of the current" practice of minute-made forgiveness is that "It not only abolishes the necessity of repentance; it abolishes sin itself."
Another distinction that has been blissfully fudged is the one between private and communal grief. Entire communities are said to be in the throws of paroxysmal tribal pangs. Can anyone claim to know what "letting the community grieve and get on with the healing process" really means? Diana's death gave a peek into the contagion of grief that convulsed the world. Was it genuine? If the showing at her memorial a year later was any indication, then no, it wasn't.
Members of the Taber and Colorado communities can legitimately lay claim to the confusion that comes with a loss of a previous sense of security. Otherwise, the spectacle of people not directly affected by the tragedy, yet performing the rites that should be reserved for the bereaved family is warped. Inspired by the prototype of group therapy, in which every individual's pain is equally weighted, it is nothing but a greedy appropriation of the private rites of the bereaved.
The community might be shocked, reeling. But the families of the dead alone are grief stricken. With every day that dawns, the family that has lost a child faces the kind of pain most of us do not know. Members of the community should relinquish their fake "grieving process" and cook a meal, do the laundry, or simply sit in silence with those whose sorrow is beyond comprehension. That done, they should fade into the background.
©1999 Ilana Mercer
A version of this column appeared in The North Shore News