It's doubtful any country can fully atone for the injustices of the past. But the effort to face up to past wrongs and bring those responsible to judgment is worthwhile, even if the final results remain incomplete.
The new South Africa recognized this, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Guatemala, Rwanda, and Cambodia, to name a few, are countries trying to come to terms with a violent, brutally unjust recent past. Japan has been pushed toward taking more responsibility for atrocities during World War II, such as the sexual abuse of Korean women by Japanese soldiers. Australia has tried to make amends to its long mistreated Aborigines.
The United States doesn't escape this list. The enslavement of Africans and the virtual extermination of many native American tribes are historical injustices the country still struggles to set aright. Other wrongs marring America's record can be more immediately addressed.
It's encouraging, for instance, to see prosecutors in the Deep South reopening unsolved murders and terrorist acts from the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights revolution. Cases like the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963, which killed four young black girls, cry out for reexamination. One man, a Ku Klux Klan leader, was convicted back in 1977. Other suspects were investigated by the FBI, though charges were never brought at the time - both because of local reluctance to prosecute and noncooperation by the FBI, then headed by J. Edgar Hoover.
All that has changed. Southern prosecutors in places like Birmingham want to set the balances of justice straight. African-Americans are in positions of influence and power. The climate of fear and intimidation has largely lifted.
The US has been confronted with another injustice in its recent past: the killing of Korean civilians by American soldiers during the Korean War.
The killings were ignored or denied in the US until the Associated Press brought them to light recently. Now the Pentagon is investigating the Army's role during those early days of the war, and may give immunity to surviving veterans who took part in the shootings.
It's a difficult decision. Should US soldiers be prosecuted for war crimes committed nearly 50 years ago? Was killing masses of civilians the right choice just because North Korean agents were likely using them for cover to kill US soldiers?
Prosecuting any case that is decades old is suspect. At the least the Pentagon should make full disclosure and the US should make compensation to surviving Koreans who lost family members.
Steps toward greater justice are noteworthy wherever they're taken - and it doesn't hurt for the world's premier democracy to be seen doing its part.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society