Should murders ever be forgiven and forgotten?

Should there ever be a statute of limitations on murder?

Image from the memorial at the Killing Fields, Cambodia, form Wikipedia Commons.
Image from the memorial at the Killing Fields, Cambodia, from Wikipedia Commons.

Tonight I went to see the film ‘The Company You keep”, with Robert Redford and Shia le Beouf. Le Beouf plays a journalist who exposes the identity of one of the Weather Underground, a real-life group of  radicals who opposed the Vietnam War, and who bombed several US federal buildings, and robbed cash deliveries to  banks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, killing several people.  In real life, three members of the group also blew themselves to pieces by accident on 6 March 1970while building a bomb in New York. The bomb was destined for a Non-Commissioned Officers’ (NCO) dance at the Fort Dix U.S. Army base. Some of the real-life weathermen were charged with various offences, some had charges dropped in 1973 after a court decision meant that evidence obtained by illegal electronic surveillance could not be used in court. Several members of the group have ‘rehabilitated’ themselves and re-integrated into society. Yes, I have used the term ‘rehabilitated’ in inverted commas, since I can’t be sure to what extent the surviving members of the group have really changed their views, or to what extent the group simply became irrelevant after the Vietnam war ended.

In the film, Robert Redford is a suspect in a bank robbery carried out in the 1970s, although, as far as I can tell, the specific robbery depicted in the film is fictional. In the movie, Redford was in fact not involved in the robbery, and goes on the run while trying to find someone who could establish his innocence.

As Redford  meets up with former members of the Weatherman group, some unpleasant questions came to my mind.

I was in Cambodia teaching English in 2010, when the trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader named Duch took place. (The Khmer Rouge were the Chinese-backed communist group that ruled Cambodia for four years, from 1975 to 1979.) Duch had overseen the Toul Sleng torture centre in Phnom Pehn, where 15,000  people were held and made to ‘confess’ to various crimes  being sent to the ‘killing fields’ just outside the city. When I visited Toul Sleng, there was a very rough English translation of the prison rules on display. The first rule was, ‘When I ask you a question you must answer me immediately, or you will get ten hits of the stick, and five shocks of the electric.’ It’s not a nice place.

On 26 June 2010 Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 year’s jail, or about 9 hours for every person whose torture he oversaw. The sentence was later increased to life imprisonment. The Cambodian government said at the time that only half a dozen more of the old Khmer Rouge leadership would go on trial. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is a former Khmer Rouge leader who defected to Vietnam, and to put every ex-Khmer Rouge leader on trial would probably leave the country with not much of its leadership left.

In other countries that have had civil wars, people have had to make compromises. In South Africa, the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ heard confessions from former white police officers and prison officers about their activities against blacks during the apartheid era, as well as violations of human right by (black) ANC members who fought the regime. About 900 people were given amnesty for their crimes. The general justification for the commission’s approach was that the country had to acknowledge what had happened in order to have healing, in order to be able to move forward.

In Northern Ireland, there has been a peace process, and Catholics and Protestants are working together in a government. I venture to suggest that if every murder committed during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ were fully investigated and prosecuted today, the degree of progress that has been made there might soon evaporate.

I’ve seen American documentaries on the real weathermen, some of whom today still won’t comment on which ‘operations’ they or other members took part in.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. If one of my kids were murdered, I’d want the killer bought to justice, even if it weren’t in the ‘national interest’ of reconciliation. There are people walking around today in the US who have almost certainly participated in murders, but for legal reasons cannot be prosecuted. South Africa, Cambodia, and Northern Ireland appear to have made decisions not to reopen old wounds for pragmatic reasons.

But should murder ever be subject to a forgive-and-forget policy? what do you think?

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