Forgive And Forget?

AN INJUSTICE UNRESOLVED AND UNFORGIVEN BURNS A hole in the heart. Although an apology cannot erase the wound, it can serve as a balm. It can "help to heal," says Fred Gray, the attorney for the survivors of the Tuskegee (Ala.) experiment--a study in official turpitude that (from 1952 to 1972) saw the U.S. government perpetrating medical malpractice in the name of syphilis research on African-Americans.

President Clinton's decision, announced last week, to apologize to the Tuskegee victims is somewhat anticlimactic, for shortly after the experiment was exposed in 1972 a $10 million package of financial reparation was negotiated. Nonetheless, a show of presidential "penance," said Gray, will finally allow his clients (only eight of the $99 surreptitiously denied treatment are still alive) the peace of mind they deserve.

Gray's talk of apology and penance raises profound questions: Is acknowledging an awful truth a prelude to getting beyond it? Can an apology made in the service of politics lead to reconciliation? Or is it better simply to ignore the past and focus on the present?

South Africa is betting that the answer to the last question is no. For the past year. much of that country has avidly followed hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body empowered to offer amnesty--in exchange for truth to those who committed atrocities on behalf of the state. At a conference in Atlanta convened earlier this month by the Southern Education Foundation, commission vice chair Alex Boraine made clear that he was under no illusion that the search for truth alone will free his nation from its past. But it is, he argued, a necessary step. "We haven't really accepted just how bad it is... the deceit, lies, the cover-ups, on which the South African society has been built," he observed. Truth was "the beginning of healing."

Exposing the truth, however, is very different from ensuring that people face it. Brigalia Bam, head of the South African Council of Churches, observed that many of the white English-speaking clergy have essentially boycotted the reconciliation process. Since they were not directly implicated in the evils of apartheid, the ministers see themselves as effectively blameless. By the same token, many of those confessing wrongdoing were not also accepting blame. How much good, she wondered, can come from confessions without remorse, from truth without compassion? Such questions yield no easy answers. Nonetheless, Boraine insisted on the value of what he is doing, citing the fact that a number of families had expressed gratitude to his commission for ferreting out the facts concerning loved ones-even if they had serious reservations about granting amnesty to murderers.

No doubt--for victimized and victimizer alike-the process of facing awful truths can sometimes lead to catharsis, perhaps even, for the wrongdoer, a renewed sense of purpose. That was certainly suggested by Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary last year, when she announced a $4.8 million financial settlement for the families of U.S. citizens secretly injected with radiation during the cold war. She pronounced herself "grateful to these families for the tough lessons they have taught us about trust, responsibility and accountability." Attorney General Richard Thornburgh expressed similar appreciation in 1988 to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. As the government agreed to cough up $1.25 billion in compensation, Thornburgh declared, "In forcing us to re-examine our history, you have made us only stronger and more proud." If facing a shameful past can lead to a better present, argues John Powell, then America ought to erect a monument commemorating slavery and its aftermath. Powell, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, believes that a memorial with slavery as its focus (in contrast to an institution with a broader agenda, such as the newly opened Museum of African-American History in Detroit) might serve a function similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It would "create space for a national discussion about the lack of a level playing field, and why we remain a nation divided."

There is a universal quality to the search for a resolution to past wrongs. The Japanese government acknowledged as much last year by apologizing to the "comfort women," who were forced to perform sex with Japanese troops during World War II. Yet, even as the government apologized, many in Japan insisted that the women were at least partly complicit. It is not altogether unlike what is going on in South Africa, where gruesome facts are admitted but responsibility is not truly accepted; or even in Tuskegee, when the reality of an ignoble history is acknowledged, but the evil itself largely dismissed as the iniquity of a less enlightened past.

Desirable as it may be to face the ugliness of the past, we inevitably bring to the task the baggage of the present, ensuring, among other things, that even if we acknowledge it we don't necessarily connect it to our times, and certainly not to ourselves. Nonetheless, there is value in formally owning up to evil. For one thing, as Gray and Boraine point out, the ritual provides some comfort for the victims and their descendants. Also, it serves as a reminder that, even in a world of relative morality, we imperil the noblest part of our humanity whenever we shirk our responsibility to sort out fight from wrong.