Newspaper article International New York Times

Struggling to Confront a Painful Past

Newspaper article International New York Times

Struggling to Confront a Painful Past

Article excerpt

America has endorsed truth and reconciliation processes in other countries. But with its history of slavery, perhaps it's time it used the process on itself.

The terror and death and protest and racial resentment in the United States have revived an old question: Does the United States need to join South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda and others in pursuing a truth and reconciliation process?

In May, the American government put out a white paper extolling such processes. It said they can reduce violence, strengthen security and deepen cohesion.

The paper endorsed economic reparations, truth commissions and memorial building. The government even expressed a willingness to pay for national healing processes. Truth and reconciliation are, after all, "a core moral responsibility of the United States."

But not for the United States. The State Department's endorsement of truth and reconciliation applies, potentially, to any country on earth but its own.

For years, some experts on so-called transitional justice -- broadly defined as an effort to help societies come to terms with traumatic histories -- have argued that the United States needs to address the legacies of slavery and white supremacy and the violence and conflict they still foster.

So I emailed the State Department to ask whether its white paper had any applicability at home.

"By their terms," said Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokeswoman for the State Department, the white paper is for "countries transitioning out of conflict and from authoritarian regimes."

I wrote back asking whether "the United States in fact fits the description of a country transitioning out of conflict."

She replied: "I won't have anything further for you."

I then called three people who have worked on or experienced other nations' processes and who have argued for an American one.

Ronald Slye, a legal scholar at Seattle University who served as one of three international commissioners for Kenya's truth and reconciliation commission, and who also advised similar efforts in Cambodia and South Africa, said he saw a familiar pattern in the United States: disagreement devolving into the denial of other people's realities and "strong alternative narratives" about history nourishing violence. …

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