Each mass shooting in the US has reinforced the need to learn lessons that can prevent such atrocities. The lessons often include improved regulation of guns, better treatment of mental illness, more security in public spaces, as well as swift and sure punishment of mass killers.
Yet one lesson is sometimes forgotten, and that is forgiveness.
On June 17, the first anniversary of the killing of nine black people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Americans may recall how many of the family members of those killed stood up and forgave the alleged killer, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist.
For sure, they wished he would be convicted and punished. Some asked that he confess and repent. But even without all those present, they still forgave him.
“We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul,” said the sister of one victim.
“If God forgives you, I forgive you,” said the daughter of another.
President Obama praised this spirit of forgiveness during a ceremony for those killed. It moved him to sing “Amazing Grace.” He was in awe of the families’ thoughtful introspection and self-examination. He said their expression of faith reflects the goodness of the American people.
“The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness,” Obama said.
One reason to offer forgiveness to a killer, even if he denies his guilt, is to allow the families of victims to be healed of revenge, which can prevent a cycle of retribution. Yet it might also eventually soften the heart of the guilty, allowing him to confess, make amends, and reform.
Forgiveness, which is love in action, is a way for individuals to bring out truth and overcome evil. And if it influences the guilty and perhaps any others to confess and reform, it is also an aspect of justice, as much as deterrence and reparations.
Such an opportunity for this form of justice, however, might be denied Dylann Roof if he is executed. On May 24, federal prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty for him. Their decision comes after state prosecutors in South Carolina said they were also seeking capital punishment for the murders.
Prosecutors represent all of society, and must balance competing aspects of justice, such as mercy, retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. Their job is not to offer collective forgiveness. Yet when the president offers praise of the forgiveness in the Charleston shootings, it is startling that his prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
This first anniversary, therefore, is a chance to remember those amazing actions by the families. Their words may still have powerful effects on Roof someday. He should be kept alive in case they do. It would add to the healing of this tragedy.