The quality of mercy in stemming violence

More than 100 former terrorists are offering private apologies to their victims this week in Indonesia. The goal: preventing violence through contrition, reconciliation, and mercy.

AP Photo
Reformed militants, from left to right, Zaenal Muttaqin, Toni Togar, Reza Sungkar, and Ramli, chat on the sidelines of a meeting with victims of attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 26. Indonesian government brought together dozens of convicted Islamic militants and survivors of attacks in what it hopes will be an important step in combating radicalism and fostering reconciliation.

In the history of seeking justice for violent acts, nothing can quite match what is happening in an Indonesian hotel this week. Over three days, about 120 former terrorists behind two mass bombings in 2002 and 2004 are meeting privately with dozens of their victims – to offer apologies.

Like a mass wedding, it is meant to be a bonding exercise, with a testing of the sincerity of vows.

The government in Jakarta designed the event to encourage the former militants to make amends through confession and remorse. But officials also hope it will reinforce the contrition of the former terrorists, help them to reintegrate into their communities, and push them toward preventing others from resorting to violence.

The bombings in Bali and Jakarta killed more than 200 people and were conducted by radical Islamic groups in the world’s largest Muslim country. Both the survivors of the attacks and the families of the slain had to be convinced that the expected apologies would be sincere and that the behavior of the ex-offenders had changed.

Forgiveness was not demanded. Both the apology and any mercy offered in response had to be seen as coming from the heart. Yet the victims were also told that forgiveness would aid in the social reconciliation needed to rebuild a moral consensus in Indonesia against terrorism.

Since the attacks of 9/11, many countries have developed methods to deradicalize and rehabilitate men and women who joined militant Islamic groups. Such programs are needed more than ever. The defeat of Islamic State in the Middle East has pushed many of its followers to return to their home countries. Yet few of the rehab efforts go as far as putting reformed offenders and victims in the same room and encouraging apologies.

Such a process of personal reconciliation is now widely used in “restorative justice” programs in many courts of law. It is also under way on a grand scale in Colombia, where former rebels who participated in the country’s long civil war are being offered judicial leniency if they confess their violence against civilians. Some former commanders of the group called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have apologized to a few victims. The aim is to break the cycle of violence driven by revenge.

The practice was popularized by South Africa in the 1990s after the end of apartheid. Those who confessed past wrongs to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were exonerated. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, “Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.”

In the United States, where much of the news focuses on school shootings, sexual assaults against women, and violence at political protests, little is being said about encouraging private apologies by reformed perpetrators to their victims. Yet given the potential healing of emotional wounds taking place in a Jakarta hotel room this week, perhaps the US and other countries can learn something about the quality of mercy for those who sincerely say sorry.

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