Most religions share certain founding principles. One of the foundations of western religion, for example, is the concept of forgiveness. We admire people who forgive, and stories of forgiveness are legion. Most of those stories involve individuals forgiving other individuals for their individual actions.
Forgiveness may be offered spontaneously, or there may be a meeting, and a discussion of why the forgiver and the forgiven acted as they did. For forgiveness to take place, there is generally an understanding that the act to be forgiven won’t happen again. There might be restitution or amends, and if voluntary, forgiveness becomes a two-way street.
It’s possible and indeed some say it’s laudable to forgive the person who robbed or raped you. Many people believe forgiveness is part of the healing process, and I think that’s true. That does not mean that people who harm us should not suffer consequences; it just means what it says – we can forgive at some point and heal.
The ease of forgiveness is itself an interesting question. If an attacker breaks into my home, and I shoot him and call the police, it may be a lot easier for me to forgive my attacker – as he lays in the hospital – than if the situation were reversed and he had shot me, or my family members.
As much as I believe in forgiveness, I believe in preparedness and vigilance. We can talk all we want about the beauty of forgiveness, but when it comes to violence, most of us would agree that it's even better not to have anything to forgive. The person who avoids the fight is so often better off than the person who won the fight.
We might even say that forgiveness is the spiritual comfort that we turn to when preparedness, vigilance, and self-protection wasn't enough. That's not meant to diminish forgiveness; merely to illustrate that self protection rightly comes first.
There is a great debate in our society about what kind of punishment (if any) should precede forgiveness, and what form the forgiveness should take. Wherever you stand on that question, one thing is sure: It will never be possible to forgive the person who kills you, because you will be dead.
That truth separates the possibility of forgiveness for individual acts from the question of forgiveness for mob actions. Mob actions may refer to a street crowd during a riot, or it may refer to the acts of soldiers in wartime. It may even refer to the actions of secret police, acting on behalf of some leader. In every case, the individual moralities are suspended, and the resultant actions are more likely to be deadly. It’s either “the mob went that way and I had no choice,” or “the leaders told me what to do, and I’d have been killed had I disobeyed.”
Self protection is seldom effective against mob or government actions.
One of the worst aspects of mob or government violence is that it is often anonymous. Victims seldom know their attackers, except by their tribe or group. Attackers feel little compassion for the victims, because they don’t know them as individuals, and the actions of their leaders have often dehumanized the target group. Attackers lose their sense of right and wrong, even though they might later describe themselves as moral people.
The speed with which this can happen is very disheartening to one who believes in the essential good ness of other people.
Whatever you believe about those ethical abdications, the fact is, they happen all the time. And once they have, forgiveness can only occur behind the protective point of a sword.
When a leader – for whatever reasons – decides another group of people must be put to death, the only defense is to meet might with greater might. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one of those essential truths that never goes away. The attackers must be wiped out, or subdued to the point that their beliefs or at least their actions can be changed.
That is often a bloody and violent process. The fact that someone else may have started it is immaterial. As much as we decry such violence, it is a part of our world, now and for the foreseeable future. Even as we speak out for peace, we have a duty to honor our warriors, because without them, there would be no discussions such as we see in these pages. One cannot discuss abstract concepts of morality while fleeing from gunfire.
We may take exception to the orders given our armed forces, and we have have issue with individual actions. The fact remains that our armed forces exist to protect our citizens, and they have done that job for 200-plus years.
If you are a member of a group that was targeted for elimination, the only reason you can say “I forgive” today is that someone gave his life to defend yours.
Some people can live their whole lives without being targeted for elimination, or drawn by their government into war. But that’s only possible because the forbearers of those people fought for their future peace, and their right to exist today. And their peace is sustained by the outside world’s belief that they would fight again, if cornered.
Many of us speak out against aggressive war, but few argue with the need for a defensive army. To me, that is what we celebrate this Memorial Day. That and the soldiers who gave their lives in defense of freedom.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.