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Do I know anyone?


A few weeks back I read a brave and poignant blogpost.

It was by an American woman, probably close to my age, whose father had fought in a notoriously brutal battle near the end of World War II. During the battle he executed a prisoner. He wasn’t offering threat or trying to escape. He wasn’t giving away their position, putting them in danger or even particularly hindering them. He was a young unarmed Japanese man, probably a teenager, who had given up the fight and was just trying to survive.

The killing weighed heavily enough on him that years later he told his daughter in some detail what he had done. Now it weighs heavily on her.

She’s under no illusions about the situation her father was in. She knows of the fear and hatred that drives a war. That can put young men who’ve never met into distant fields with deadly weapons, ready to do terrible things to each other and anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby. She’s researched the battle and knows how horrendous it was. Worse than Hollywood could ever portray. She acknowledges she has never known the man her father was back then.

She calls it murder. It was certainly a war crime. Had the US not been victors her father could have been convicted and executed for it. She says it was unnecessary. Unconscionable. A cruel act lacking thought or feeling. Utterly without compassion. She feels the need to ask forgiveness on behalf of her Dad.

I disagreed.

Was it my Asperger’s? Seeing what I thought was an important point and feeling compelled to make it no matter who I might hurt. Was I mansplaining? Exercising my male prerogative to correct any woman I believe has got something wrong? Am I just callous and rude? Probably all of that and more. I barged into the comments section with my own two cents worth.

I tell her she can’t ask forgiveness for her father because she wasn’t there and isn’t him. She doesn’t know what there is to forgive. She can’t understand.

She’s upset by my response. I’d be lying if I said I was surprised. She says I don’t understand her point of view. This is beyond dispute. She asks if I know anyone who has looked someone in the eye and killed them. I do. More than one.

One who comes quickly to mind I knew through my criminal justice activism. I worked closely with him, socialised with him and spoke with him often. I liked and respected him and still do, though we’ve been out of touch for over a decade. He was my friend.

He killed the woman he married in a frenzied knife attack.

I can’t begin to imagine the horror of dying in such a way. At the hands of the father of your children. I knew what he’d done from first I met him.

He was found guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. I don’t believe there should be such a provision in law. I don’t think objective distinctions between free will and compulsion can be made in a courtroom, if at all. He was sentenced to several years, much of it in a secure hospital. He wrote bizarre letters, some of them threatening violence against people he believed were his enemies. Politicians, media pundits and forensic psychologists publicly condemned him. They declared him too dangerous to be released. A law was passed specifically for him. To keep him locked away forever. It was struck down on constitutional grounds. He was released.

It took him a while to adapt to his radically changed circumstances, but gradually he did. Many would find him eccentric but he has a cheerful, gentle disposition and few would be afraid of him. He threw himself into community service. He received recognition for his work helping released prisoners reintegrate into society. He has a ready sense of humour but there’s a thread of unfathomable despair through it. He never forgets what he did.

I don’t forgive him for the unforgivable. Nor do I stand in judgement over him. What he did is beyond my comprehension. I could never stretch my empathy enough to put myself in the place of someone who has carried out such an act. And without empathy, what is forgiveness?

It seems an easy call to make when talking about something as extreme as killing another human being. I can set up a stage in my head. I can project variations of myself into the roles of protagonists. I can make them act out a narrative that accords with how I think events may have taken place. I can imagine rage, terror, pain, despair, innocence and guilt. I can fantasise about killing someone or falling victim to a killer. But I can only imagine it. It could never be real to me unless I’d had it done to me or done it myself. I know I haven’t lived it. I know I cannot judge it. I can offer compassion but not forgiveness.

But what about less extreme situations? The person who is casually malicious to a stranger. Those who break into homes and steal cherished possessions to buy drugs. The petty cruelty of children.

What about more extreme ones? The judge who hands down death sentences. The politician who sends soldiers to war. The industrialist who condemns thousands to death and suffering for profit.

What about people who do harm to me? Can I truly forgive them or only let it go? Forgive myself for becoming their victim.

Can I ever understand why someone else does what they do? How well do I understand my own actions? Can I condemn? Can I forgive?

Is it just my Asperger’s again? A deficiency of empathy? Does it reflect fear of my own actions being judged by those who don’t understand them? Is it moral relativism gone mad?

Or is it a realistic assessment of the limits of my own understanding? My freedom to swing my fist stops somewhere short of your nose. Does my freedom to judge stop somewhere short of your life?

Maybe true forgiveness is beyond the capacity of human beings. Maybe that’s why we need gods.

From → autobiography

  1. Belief systems are based
    On emotions and while
    Of Course one can tell people
    What they
    In terms of
    Human Emotions
    And how they Deal
    With All the Chaos
    Of Life with their
    Personal Beliefs..
    One rarely
    Without Sharing
    The Pain with the
    Sympathy that
    Understands the
    Pain and oh
    Lord how
    Trials and errors
    In Literally Hundreds
    Of thousands of Direct
    Conversations.. i continue
    To practice not to step
    On Hearts for my
    Be the Hall
    Monitor.. Humans
    Will never be Science..
    In other words one “Can’t”
    Tell them
    What to Feel
    As she was the
    One truly looking
    For Forgiveness for
    What she didn’t understand
    But hehe.. i wouldn’t wanna
    By telling her
    That.. instead..I’d
    Use a similar story
    Of a failure in my life to relate
    Where i could not understand..:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I doubt I can understand anyone’s pain except my own. Maybe not even that.

      But you’re probably right. I shouldn’t have taken it upon myself to tell her she couldn’t understand something. Maybe I’m just projecting my own lack of understanding onto her.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SMiLes..
        i once told a
        Guy who had Premature Heart
        Failure that life was
        Fair when he said it
        Wasn’t.. later
        i found out
        It wasn’t..
        Of course keeping
        In mind that i am
        Diagnosed with
        Asperger’s and
        Bi-polar too..
        In my case the
        Two conditions
        Tend to heal each
        Other as many of
        My Bi-polar relatives
        Died early from addictions or went
        To Jail.. gotta love
        The cold hard logic
        That saves your ass


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