“Whoever was tortured, stays tortured”

I’d like to draw attention to – and recommend — “Living with the Enemy,” an essay by Susie Linfield, which applies the ideas of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry to the current challenge of reconciliation in Rwanda. (It appeared in today’s Arts and Letters Daily, my Safari homepage.)

She begins,

“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light…

Linfield discusses Améry’s writings, then draws on the trilogy of Jean Hatzfeld (which I reviewed here and in three subsequent posts last March), as well as the work of Primo Levi and photographer Jonathan Torgovnik to remind that “whoever was tortured, stays tortured.”

There’s much that could be said about forgiveness and reconciliation that’s not the least bit glib, but of course Linfield is right. The way we inevitably go at it, in our hopes for — and advice to — others whose torments we have not shared, never mind understood, is too quick. We like happy endings, and the sooner the happier. Linfield’s essay slows our expectations. It challenges our minds about what’s really at stake in a lasting reconciliation.

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