Essay

Beyond truth and justice

AT THE FUNERAL of Chile's General Pinochet, in December 2006, Francisco Cuadrado Prats stood for hours in a queue of grieving mourners. When it was his time to say goodbye, he walked up to the coffin and spat on the general's slowly decomposing face. In what seemed an instant, the crowd set upon him. Who knows what would have happened if the military police had not intervened, and swiftly?

Francisco Cuadrado Prats, it turned out, was the grandson of General Carlos Prats, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, who resigned from his post in 1973 but not before heartily recommending his friend, Augusto Pinochet, as a replacement. After the military coup of 11 September 1973, Carlos Prats was forced into exile in Argentina and then blown up on a Buenos Aires street – together with his wife, as was the custom then – on the direct orders of his successor and good friend. When it happened, little Francisco was about to start school: a formative age, you may say.

In the coffin, Augusto Pinochet wore a blue Chilean army uniform, his allegiance to the military as the foremost institution of the state unambiguous even in his afterlife. The military, after all, brought him to power in 1973. The military ensured his amnesty. And now the military was burying him with enough pomp and ceremony to make everyone forget that the massive gathering was not – and, in 2006, could not be – a state funeral. Michelle Bachelet, the Chilean president at the time, was imprisoned under Pinochet, as were both her parents; her father, Air Force Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet, died in military custody from a heart attack brought on by torture.

Later in the funeral proceedings, in an unscheduled appearance defying military regulations (a captain in the Chilean army is forbidden from making political statements while in uniform), Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina burst into a speech defending his grandfather's honour and legacy: 'He was a man who at the height of the Cold War defeated the Marxist model, which tried to impose its totalitarian model not by vote, but more directly by force of arms.'

At the funeral the crowd parted for Pinochet's grandson, but later that week he was expelled from the army. Shortly after, thousands of scam emails claiming to be written by Pinochet's grandson were sent around the world: 'I am now being dismissed from the Chilean army...and they want to collect our family fortune from me. I need your help to take care of this money.' Whatever you say, these guys are on the ball.

Reflecting on the events of the funeral day, the Chilean-American writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman noted the extent to which the story of today's Chile was 'told by two grandsons of generals'. 'For reconciliation to occur in Chile,' Dorfman wrote, 'the grandson of Carlos Prats would have to forget the death of his grandfather, renounce all desire for justice, betray the deepest sources of his wounded identity. Or the grandson of Augusto Pinochet would have to accept that his grandfather was a murderer and ask for forgiveness for the dead man's actions.' Neither of these grandsons will ever able to do this. This, Dorfman says, is where Chile is at.

Dorfman, who survived the coup (miraculously, he believes) and fled to the US, waited a long time for Pinochet to be brought to justice. To him, and to countless others in Chile and across the world, Pinochet's death brought no relief. Coming before Pinochet was convicted for human rights abuses, it felt acutely like a defeat, a painful miscarriage of justice. 'Both supporters and opponents of Pinochet had reasons to wish he was still alive,' noted Jonathan Franklin in The Guardian. Supporters wanted Pinochet to be immortal. Opponents wanted him to be held accountable for his crimes, for justice to beat mortality to the punch.

 

A FEW YEARS after Augusto Pinochet Molina rose to his feet at his grandfather's funeral, the grandson of another dead general – of a dead Generalissimus, in fact – was suing for defamation. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, Stalin's grandson, was claiming that the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta (for which the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskya had worked) should be held accountable for its claims that his grandfather was a mass murderer. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili told journalists he felt compelled to intervene because his grandfather (not unlike the grandfather of Augusto Pinochet Molina) could not 'defend himself from his grave'. In Captain Molina's speech at his grandfather's funeral, he lauded his grandfather's victory over the Marxist totalitarianism of the kind Yevgeny Dzhugashvili's grandfather had taken to its apotheosis, yet somehow, two generations down, Augusto and Yevgeny found themselves on the same side of the barricades.

Today there exists a curious preponderance of renegade grandsons of the dead dictators (granddaughters are also there but not quite in force, it seems). The grandson of the Spanish dictator General Franco was recently in the news, accused of pulling out a revolver and firing four shots at another driver at a roundabout near Madrid. Mussolini's grandson is also out there, still looking for the elusive truth about the circumstances of his grandfather's death, in 1945.

Even though the twentieth-century dictators may seem like ghosts to us now, farcical more than dangerous, shadowy more than real, their grandsons point to a peculiar historical condition of our time. Ours is a world where the unravelling of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes in Europe and Latin America has produced a host of societies in which the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of 'victims and tormentors live side by side, drink at the same bars, eat at the same restaurants, jostle each other on buses and streets', as Ariel Dorfman puts it. Perhaps this condition won't seem so peculiar when we begin to confront the intergenerational legacy of more recent outbreaks of large-scale violence – in post-apartheid South Africa, in post-genocidal Rwanda and Bosnia – where at least some of the victims and perpetrators, as well as their children and grandchildren, are condemned, for what may seem like an eternity, to walk the same streets.

 

DECEMBER 2010 MARKED the end of my three-year research fellowship with the Social Memory and Historical Justice project at Swinburne University (the italics are mine). When I first joined the project, at the end of 2007, that co-ordinating conjunction in the project's title felt comfortably self-evident to me. Of course the two – Memory and Justice – were connected, urgently and meaningfully, in confronting the legacies of violent and painful pasts. Because we doggedly and single-mindedly keep the memory of the great moral catastrophes of the past alive, we will not let them happen in the future. Memory of the past, vigorously maintained and transmitted, deepens and intensifies our commitment to justice in the present. It locks us in to the pursuit of a just world, however we may imagine it. Spurred by this memory, we create and maintain national and transnational institutions concerned with the vigilant protection of human rights. We fight against the impunity granted to mass murderers. We don't stand in silence when people's rights, lives and dignity are systematically violated.

It all seemed pretty obvious to me.

And if, at the start of this project, I was looking for tensions and complications in that symbiotic relationship between Memory and Justice, then Memory, the socially shared and publicly manifest kind, struck me –again, quite self-evidently, I thought – as being the wildcard. Memory was the volatile and unpredictable partner, the one that, if not kept in check, could be difficult and divisive. Justice – both restorative, focused on the needs of victims, and retributive, focused on the punishment of perpetrators – was the mature one, holding the relationship together, steering it through the rough waters. However difficult it might be to define and enforce, especially when dealing with historical injustices and wrongs, Justice looked like an unambiguous, theorisable good. It was to be administered sternly, like medicine. The patient may gag at the start, but sooner or later she was bound to get better.

I had not yet come across Dorfman's reflections on Pinochet's funeral, and so did not have in my mind the image of two grandsons at a funeral (spectacular, but by no means unique to Chile); nor did I have an inkling that three years later I would come to see Justice too as a wildcard. For all the official state apologies, truth and reconciliation commissions, the trials and tribunals, the independent reports; for all the vast archives of testimonial material and cultural responses, all the charged conversations about healing and forgiveness –the pursuit of intergenerationally meaningful and enduring justice and reconciliation in post-totalitarian and postcolonial nations remains one of our age's most intractable problems.

And so, three years later, I came to see the disjunction 'or' as a more accurate and honest descriptor of the relationship between Memory and Justice (and, in fact, between Memory, Justice, Truth and Reconciliation). In truth commissions in South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina and Uganda, amnesty – sometimes limited, sometimes unlimited – was offered to perpetrators in exchange for their testimonies. Truth was traded for Justice. The most famous of these commissions, in South Africa, promised amnesty to individuals guilty of 'gross violations of human rights', who offered full disclosure of their acts and whose offences were deemed politically motivated.

Just as frequent, if less explicit, are the trade-offs between Truth and Reconciliation. Christine Bell, a professor of public international law at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, says that in post-autocratic societies seeking to establish a democratic rule this so-called transitional justice often becomes a 'cloak' concealing all kinds of bargains made with the past. Bell believes that the primary motivation behind the pursuit of justice in such societies is a quest not for accountability, but for 'a mechanism for "dealing with the past" that will sustain political settlement'. The past – the truths it may yield, the forms of acknowledgment and redress it may demand, the memories it could mobilise – is managed, kept in check, in the name of a politically sustainable future.

Still, the disjunction 'or' straddling the space between Justice, Truth, Memory, Reconciliation does not always stand for an elaborate political compromise; just as often, it speaks of the complexity of our individual and our society's needs in the aftermath of violence. Sometimes, for instance, the acknowledgment of truth may be worth more to those who suffered than the enforcement of retributive justice. Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (1990) examines the aftermath of large-scale violence in Brazil and Uruguay. He found that if anything the desire for truth is often more urgently felt by the victims of torture than the desire for justice. People don't necessarily insist that former torturers go to jail – there's been enough jail – but they do want to see the truth established and exposed.

At the same time, public acknowledgment of dirty truths that up to that point were an 'open secret' – known to everyone, but publicly unsayable – and the cascading effects of this acknowledgment may function as a form of restorative justice. While the search for forms of justice that could prove enduring and meaningful across generations will continue, as it must (and so will those life-and-death debates about the politics of regret and redress), there are things that we know already. We know that Memory, Justice, Truth, Reconciliation do not all co-exist blissfully in one shared meta-field, part and parcel of the same noble projects and endeavours. Perhaps it is time we paused, and stopped waving them around like Olympic flags.

 

WHERE TO NOW? I suggest we follow Ariel Dorfman, with his image of two grandsons and one funeral, of grief and anger bumping against each other like dodgem cars for generations. The place Dorfman can take us to may prove no less revelatory for settler nations like Australia, postcolonial rather than post-totalitarian. As we attempt to get a measure of colonialism's all-pervasive yet dangerously elusive trans-generational legacy, Dorfman's foregrounding of Time, as a crucial and independent dimension in our pursuit of justice, and of Family, as the foremost site we need to focus on, is likely to be singularly instructive.

If we follow Dorfman, sooner or later we will have to give up our comforting vision of the third generation acting as a watershed – a vision that promises us that once we get to the grandchildren of those who brutalised, and those who were brutalised, all kinds of things may become possible: Reconciliation (even if it is, of necessity, Reconciliation-lite), forgiveness, healing, the beginnings of a properly shared country. Dorfman insists that living memory – the kind that burns within survivors, perpetrators and witnesses, within their children and grandchildren; the kind that carries within it a unique charge – cannot be fully reconciled. Not in Chile; not in other post-dictatorial countries of Latin America; not in Rwanda or Bosnia; not in the former Soviet nations; not in South Africa.

In Country of My Skull (Random House, 1998), which chronicled South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Antjie Krog famously wrote, 'It doesn't matter what we do. What De Klerk does. Until the third and the fourth generation' – in other words, until the living memory is no more. We may agree or disagree with Dorfman and Krog, but there is a profound point in what they are saying that should not be missed. The irreconcilability of memories and experiences in post-genocidal and post-totalitarian societies can, they tell us, only be waited out. If we are honest with ourselves, we can only count on time.

A Time for Justice. A Time for Reconciliation. We are, understandably, in a hurry. We want justice to be done as quickly as humanly possible. We want to strive for reconciliation feverishly, tirelessly, single-mindedly. But are we rushing too much? Are we forcing the issue in ways that inflict new injuries on those already in pain; that create new, invisible forms of injustice which displace the burden of reconciliation on the shoulders of the descendants of survivors, from whom we implicitly but persistently demand forgiveness? Are we trying to push people to traverse as quickly as possible the vastness of their grief? Are we trying to fast-forward all those processes – resentment, resistance, recognition – that must be fully and painfully lived through before reconciliation can stop being a joke or an insult? 'Before forgiveness, before reconciliation', writes the South African academic and activist Heidi Grunebaum, 'there is an obligation of recognition: recognition as the suspension of expectation, as the move toward a reciprocity that may be endlessly deferred.'

Deferred, that is, by the descendants of those victimised. How long will it take for experiences of violence and injustice to be lived through and absorbed, for the forgiveness to emerge, not to be forced out? We don't know. It will take as long as it takes. And we must not forget fear. How many decades need to pass before people in post-totalitarian countries can stop fearing the return of the dictatorship, before they can view the end of tyranny not merely as a temporary, unsettling respite? How many decades need to pass before genocide survivors and their descendants come to believe that the world has changed so much that, what happened to them, or their parents, or their grandparents, can never happen again?

In a postcolonial nation such as Australia, where the intergenerational structures of violence and injustice are particularly pronounced and where there is no clear 'before' and 'after' of colonisation, the question of time is particularly relevant (the second- or third-generation descendants of the Stolen Generation, for instance, can claim to be survivors in their own right). The philosopher Janna Thompson tells us that Indigenous Australians cannot simply be regarded as another category of disadvantaged and marginalised citizens. The historic, intergenerational nature of the injustices committed against them is central to imagining and putting into practise meaningful forms of redress.

For Thompson, our responsibility to future generations – which we express so uncontroversially in our concerns about, say, the national debt or looming environmental disasters – must run parallel with our responsibilities to those who came before us. We must think of the time of justice as flowing in both directions at once. And if we let ourselves think like this, then all kinds of questions emerge. Could shared pain – not shared memory, distilled into a public consensus – be the backbone of a reconciled country? Could grief – not justice – be the foundation on which something real can be built?

A great deal of contemporary thinking about justice has focused either on the institutions of the state (truth and reconciliation commissions, reparations, courts, monuments and anniversaries, apologies, school textbooks) or on various groups (victims, perpetrators, witnesses). Yet, if we follow Ariel Dorfman, we will stumble on a simple truth: family is where we need to look if we are to understand the long-term legacy of totalitarianism and colonialism, if we are to theorise possibilities of justice, memory and reconciliation in post-totalitarian and postcolonial societies.

This is what happened in Germany after World War II. There, over time, the intense debates about intergenerational complicity and guilt resulted in what Elizabeth Hook calls the 'relocation' of questions of responsibility from 'the larger national and political arena to the intimate relationships between parents and their children'. Thinking of a family as a basic intergenerational unit of social, communicable memory can also remind us that social memory is not some bloodless, abstract category. It is not a set of competing and ideologically inflected narratives about our nation's past. Memory like this comes to us charged with anger and guilt, stung with shame, shadowed by grief, shaped by loyalty and love. We must make room in our public sphere, and in our debates about justice, for everything this memory brings
with it.

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