Forgive and forget.
That's the American way -- a way that will be greatly tested in the weeks
and months ahead.
Revenge is the rage in America. At this time, the logic of an eye-for-an-
eye seems compelling. The guardians of American pride -- and the honor of the
victims in New York and Washington -- want payback.
Even my own 7-year-old daughter, whom I thought had no grasp of current
events, blandly declared, in between bites of a burrito at the dinner table on
Wednesday, that those behind the air attacks should be "caught and killed."
But retaliation -- if Americans seek revenge for the sake of revenge -- is
risky. It could drag the United States into an unending cycle of violence,
where a new terrorist's reply follows each American sanction, prompting even
grimmer forms of retaliation.
Before setting ourselves on a vengeful course, we should measure the degree
of retaliation carefully, mindful that revenge often is a trap laid by the
And revenge is something more. It is un-American.
Yes, forgiveness, not revenge, is the main note in the tapestry of the
American past. The tale of the Hatfields and McCoys, those infamous feuding
neighbors, stands as a caution against the damage done to the quality of life
when adversaries allow violence to flourish for its own sake.
In stark contrast to many other nations, the United States has a long
history of setting aside differences in order to promote the interests of the
living. As a nation of immigrants, the capacity to avoid unending disputes is
crucial, and the American method has been to mix forgiveness with a dose of
The Civil War -- the bloodiest conflict in history when it unfolded in the
1860s -- is held up as the one great example of American failure at
reconciliation. The war, of course, ended slavery, represented a bitter defeat
for the South and inaugurated a dozen years of Northern occupation. Yet in
less than a generation, Yankee and Rebel soldiers were holding reunions
together, Southern blacks were re-enslaved by Jim Crow laws and the war came
to be seen as redemptive: Out of this immense bloodshed grew a united nation.
Or consider the U.S. attitude after World War II. Americans spared no
weapon in the fight to vanquish Germany and Japan, even using atomic weapons
against the latter. But once the war ended, Americans helped both these
vanquished peoples rebuild, and today both countries are among America's
staunchest allies and fiercest economic rivals.
In the spirit of reconciliation, the great civil rights leader Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. called on African Americans in the 1960s not to respond with
violence to the aggression of their white oppressors. He preached a message of
forgiveness that ultimately won over enough whites to begin a process of
racial healing that, while still unfinished, ended the nightmare of American
To be sure, forgiveness and selective forgetfulness are no panaceas.
Americans must first levy a punishment on those who orchestrated and assisted
in the murder of its fellow citizens, in order to set the stage for a more
But Americans and their leaders must realize that no punishment can fit
this crime. No retaliation will bring back the hundreds of missing New York
firefighters and the thousands more presumed dead from the four air crashes.
Having been dealt this bad hand, pragmatic Americans ought to fall back on
their history, and on their particular genius for setting aside differences in
the service of a greater good.
America is not invincible. It never was. And the open society of which
America is a fine example has always had its enemies. There are no more
enemies today, and probably good deal fewer, than there were a half century
ago or even a quarter-century ago.
Yes, punish the terrorists. But in so doing, remember that punishment ought
to satisfy the needs of living and not merely honor the dead.
G. Pascal Zachary is a visiting professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and the author of "The Global Me" on how nations benefit from human diversity.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle