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Give the kidnapped Cleveland women their privacy – and identity

Many have asked that the women who were held hostage in Cleveland be given privacy to heal. But compassion should involve more than suspending our curiosity. How we actually define people emerging from traumatic experiences can support their healing and the public’s.

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Rather than waiting to hear the media stories about permanently diminished lives of those injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, we can help nurture these individuals by seeing them as able to be productive again. Instead of viewing the three Cleveland women as violated and robbed of their formative years, we can uplift them by noting their effort to build a life that recognizes their innocence.

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The flip side to this is more demanding. Just as those affected by tragedy are more than the sum of the worst things that happened to them, so, too, are those who instigated these acts.

Ariel Castro, the man accused of kidnapping the three women in Cleveland, speaks tenderly of the little girl he fathered with one of his captives. The young Boston bombing suspects were immigrants trying to fit in. They went to high school in the US. The younger brother had obtained citizenship. But the older brother was a story of dashed dreams when the boxing world barred him from chasing his ambitions because he had not yet been naturalized. At some point he apparently became receptive to destructive distortions of his Muslim faith.

While the journeys of aggressors toward restoration may be very different from the people they harmed, it serves both our individual and collective interest to acknowledge something worthwhile when it may be evident. If wrongdoers are to reform, they must recognize the wrong they have done. Then they must be helped to see that they are worthy of reformation.

That is the essential lesson from successful reconciliation processes elsewhere. South Africa’s truth commission tied full disclosure and remorse to amnesty and forgiveness. In Rwanda and Sierra Leone, villages torn apart by unspeakable atrocities have found healing through traditional forms of dialogue and justice.

It takes great courage and humility for perpetrators of gross human rights violations to face the communities they terrorized, admit their deeds, and ask for forgiveness. It takes even greater courage and humility to reaccept them. But that is how these families and communities have been restored.

When high-profile tragedy breaks on the news, there will always be tension between the public’s right to know and the right to privacy of those affected. There should be. But we as media consumers can do much to elevate both.

These events should rouse us to think more deeply about what really defines us, and to see in each other the more inviolable substance of each person’s humanity.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.


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