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The American Way: Forgive
Published on Sunday, September 16, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
The American Way: Forgive
by G. Pascal Zachary
 
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 terrorist.

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 amnesia.

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 apartheid.

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 charitable response.

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

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