…is what I have discovered in reading of late about the resistance to apartheid and the achievement of freedom in South Africa during the last quarter-century. Most recently I’ve finished a haunting book called A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served on the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book relates a series of interviews Gobodo-Madikizela held with Eugene de Kock, the former head of state-sanctioned death squads under the Afrikaaner regime. It’s remarkable on many counts, but what came through most strongly for me was the striking resemblance between the rationalizations for apartheid violence and those we hear today from the president and his supporters regarding our own embrace of violence. Here’s an example from the book:
This [kind of rationalization] is a trick most perpetrators use, especially those sponsored by a powerful government, to try to make their actions understandable by saying, “What my people have done, yours have done too.” What is tragic is that they really do believe that what they have done is no worse than the other group’s actions. Typically, the perpetrator starts off with rationalization, to convince himself of the legitimacy of his acts, then he begins to communicate his rationalization to others. At this point it is no longer a rationalization but a “truth” that releases the perpetrator from any sense of guilt he may still feel about his evil deeds. If the enemy is doing the same thing he himself is engaged in, then he can’t be that bad.
Some people, when faced with their evil deeds, understand the moral implications of their actions, but to maintain some “dignity,” to protect their sense of identity as respectable human beings, they cling to the belief that what they did was morally correct.
Think killing of innocent civilians (women and small children) under the guise of military operations; think Abu Ghraib; think NSA wiretapping, and God only knows what else. But read this book not just for its portrayal of evil but also for its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. I have also read two or three books by Archbishop Tutu, and a delightful memoir by the courageous editor Donald Woods, who returned to South Africa in the Mandela era after 12 years in exile — and in all of them one can find hints on how to reconstruct and heal a society gone terribly, terribly wrong, as ours now has.