Prior to the execution of Saddam Hussein last month, I wonder how many Iraqi officials pondered these questions: Is hanging our former dictator the best thing we can do for Iraq at this moment? Or should we just hold him in prison and focus all available resources on quelling violence in Baghdad and promoting solidarity among the various ethnic, religious, and political factions?
Mr. Hussein was definitely a murderous tyrant who deserved to be held accountable for his crimes, but it will be bitterly ironic if his death creates a new divide within a population that's supposed to be pulling itself together.
Reconciliation is often a crucial factor in the process of building and maintaining a nation. In a perfect world, justice and reconciliation would work together to resolve collective grievances and break cycles of recrimination. I doubt that the crude video of Hussein's hanging will encourage a spirit of national unity in Iraq. And people who taunt a condemned man on the gallows have crossed the line that separates justice from revenge.
The subject of reconciliation figured prominently in many of the posthumous tributes written about President Ford. Whether it was right or wrong to pardon President Nixon is a question historians will be debating for generations. I think Mr. Ford truly believed this country was being hurt by Watergate and saw the pardon as the best way to prevent further damage.
President Carter took the same kind of decisive action one day after his inauguration when he signed a pardon for Vietnam-era draft evaders who had failed to register or had left the country. Both presidents were declaring, in effect, "This issue is now off the collective agenda. Time to move on."
But muting a divisive issue doesn't necessarily bring reconciliation. America's journey through periods of conflict and coexistence has been a rough ride from the start. One fact that's often glossed over is that many colonists opposed the American Revolution. After the British were defeated, a lot of them packed up and moved on, literally, back to England or north to Canada.
In discussing Iraq, many analysts have cited the need for a political framework that provides "incentives" for competing factions to work together and make compromises. Unfortunately, reconciliation has no template that you can hand over to an entire country and say, "Here, this is how you do it." Every society has to figure it out in their own cultural and historical context.
The anger and hatred that engulfed Europe during World War II still lingers in many areas of the Continent. Will it ever disappear completely? How long will the corrosive effects of apartheid last in South Africa?
There are no quick answers. To put a new spin on an old saying: Rancor and retribution are halfway around the world before reconciliation can even put its boots on. And once the boots are on, it's usually a long, hard slog.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.