Can We All Get Along? Margaret Hawkins
“I just want to be forgiven.” The quote, from reformed meth dealer Jim Lorge, headlined a New York Times story in early October about the Minnesota Board of Appeals, a legal body that rules twice a year on whether to pardon convicted felons.
Yadegar Asisi, “Panorama: Dresden 1945” (detail), 2006, circular panometer, 15’ high. Courtesy of the artist
Each supplicant gets exactly ten minutes to plead for mercy. All have committed serious crimes and most have already served long prison sentences. Now they’re trying to make their way back into the world. Lorge is now a drug counselor. A pardon will clear his records, give him a fresh start.
The story appeared way down on the website, below daily news and opinion on the war in Israel and Gaza. It appeared below photos of bloody safe rooms and bodies under rubble and the jumble of words we’ve already become numb to: terrorism, abduction, beheading, retaliation, humanitarian catastrophe, eradication, extermination, thirst, hunger, war, and death.
By comparison, a story about pardoning a few criminals seems trivial. Yet the idea, reconciliation, isn’t. At some point, usually sooner than later, vengeance, often dressed up as “justice,” accomplishes nothing positive. Vengeance, as distinct from self-defense, only leads us down a darker spiral of hate, suffering, and more violence. Perhaps mass violence.
Occasionally, someone tries to break that cycle, points to a way out, if only we’d follow. Rodney King, a Black man almost beaten to death by white LAPD cops during his arrest for drunk driving in 1991, spoke during a press conference during the riots that followed the cops’ acquittal. He didn’t protest his treatment. He begged people to stop hurting each other, asking famously, “Can we all get along?”
Shaun Leonardo, “Rodney King, Before BLM,” 2017, charcoal on paper with mirror tint on frame, 30 x 45”.
Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington D.C.
The answer seems to be no. But to even question that the proper response to an atrocity is another atrocity that has itself become a radical act.
Twenty-two years ago, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed another in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people on American soil. Almost immediately we declared war in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were senseless, brutal wars that dragged on for eight and twenty years, respectively, costing the lives of over 7,000 American soldiers, along with countless Iraqis and Afghans. We didn’t even get the target right. The use of military might driven by vengeance provided a brief and dirty thrill, but it accomplished nothing.
Reconciliation is the principle underlying the Minnesota Board of appeals. When it happens, and it doesn’t happen often, it’s hard won. Victims and their families get to weigh in and they don’t always agree. But as Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, says about conferring second chances on convicted felons: “We’re not soft on crime. What we recognize is, we all are flawed. And at the same time, there’s got to be accountability. We can have both.”
J.M.W. Turner, “The Field of Waterloo,” 1818, oil on canvas, 58 x 94”. Courtesy of Tate Britain, London
Both: Mercy and accountability. Seeing humanity in the enemy. It’s hard to imagine in cases such as Hamas or Putin, but it happens. In Evanston, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago that is only a few miles from where a six-year-old was stabbed to death for being Muslim, two school board members issued an inclusive and carefully worded joint letter of support for children. One of the board members is Jewish, the other Palestinian.
These tiny flickers of reconciliation are the opposite of the deadlock that grips the Middle East, a deadlock that results from absolute certainty that there is only one right way. Such certainty is choking our world, and our own country, in a thousand ways.
I understand that I do not fully understand, and that I may not have a fully informed opinion on this subject just because I am American. I have never seen a baby beheaded. I’ve never been deprived of food or water, let alone had to transport a loved one’s decomposing body on a donkey cart because I have no place to bury it because I am being driven out of my home to a closed border.
Shepard Fairey, “Eyes on the King Verdict,” 2022, 18 x 24”.
Courtesy of the artist, © 2022
All I know is there is no “sorting this out.” Deciding who is “right.” Heated speeches and clinging inflexibly to passionately held beliefs only leads to more suffering and death. Violence will never end violence. The memory will fester and break out more bitterly elsewhere. The only way out is through practicing compromise, listening, and tolerance. Consider the outrageous possibility of forgiveness central to Mr. Lorge’s story.
Granted, the scenario is almost unimaginable, a naive wish. As a species we’re not any good at this. It’s hard to picture humanity practicing real tolerance for one day let alone for the duration it would take to heal. But the choice is stark now that we’re once more on the verge of self-annihilation.
Money and guns and authoritarian governments won’t hold the world together, not for long. It’s going to take a change of heart on a scale more massive than any we’ve ever seen. And such a change will surely be terribly slow, perhaps too slow, because it starts small. But there is also a whole lot of small out there.
. Kara Walker, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” 2014, resin and sugar, 35 x 75’. Courtesy of the artist and Creative Time, New York
On October 7, Hamas abducted Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old Israeli peace worker, and held her hostage for sixteen days. On October 23, she was let go. Upon release, she was photographed shaking the hand of the Hamas gunman who’d held her captive. She spoke a single word: Shalom.
If one person can do this, then we know it’s possible. I suggest we talk to this woman. Or rather, listen to her. We need to find out what she knows that the rest of us don’t. We need to form a federation of the wise and put them in charge and treat them gently. They, like Ms. Lifshitz, will probably be very old.
If we could do this, there’s still a chance we can save ourselves from mass destruction. But we better hurry up.