What could a journalist possibly have to say about forgiveness? After all, our profession is among the most judgmental and unforgiving in the world. What could a war reporter possibly have to say about forgiveness as a path to reconciliation? Is it not the media that are always rushing to hot spots and in the end doing little more than stirring up the violence? Don’t the media on some level even profit from the violence with increased circulation and higher television ratings?
I am not a devout Catholic, but from Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001 I went on what I called a wayward Catholic’s journalistic pilgrimage. I retraced the path of Jesus’ life from Bethlehem to Egypt and Nazareth and Jordan and Jerusalem. Along the ancient Roman paving stones, I found that the themes that resonated 2,000 years ago at the time of Jesus’ lifemilitary occupation, religious extremism, economic injustice, the quest to control Jerusalemwere the same issues that divide people today. I arrived at a simple but profound truth: the message that Jesus preached in the land he called home, a theology centered on forgiveness even of one’s enemies, is as challenging and as radical today as it was back then. I explored whether the theology of forgiveness, perhaps even the politics of forgiveness, might be a way out of the cycle of violence in the Middle East.
During my time in Jerusalem, I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak, challenging Israelis and Palestinians to follow the path of South Africa in seeking to end the bloodshed there through a truth and reconciliation commission like the one Tutu headed. To quote Archbishop Tutu, Forgiveness is not just some nebulous, vague idea that one can easily dismiss. It has to do with uniting people through practical politics. Without forgiveness there is no future.
I am not a theologian. I am a foreign correspondent. What I do is tell stories, stories that, I hope, can enlighten. In this vocation, one has a front-row seat on history, and I’d like to share two recent and very personal scenes I observed from those box seats.
The first took place in Afghanistan. I was among the first reporters into the country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Like everyone else, I was reeling from what had happened. In that tree of grief that seemed to branch out all over the country, my wife and I lost a dear friend. A neighbor of ours from Charlestown, Mass., was on American Airlines Flight 11. Her name was Neilie Casey, and she was a beautiful young woman with a smile as warm as a sunrise. But before her funeral even took place, I found myself on the front lines in Afghanistan.
We forded the Amru Daya River on horseback and came up onto a dusty ridge. From the trenches we could see the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces about 800 yards away. Vague shapes moving in the dust were the enemy. A Northern Alliance soldier offered me his Russian sniper’s rifle, because it had a high-powered scope through which I could see more clearly. I raised the rifle and there they were, Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, right there in the cross hairs.
The rifle was fully loaded. The safety was off. I suddenly thought about Neilie and about the enormity of the crime that took her life. And in this moment, I recognized the ease of revenge, the dark pleasure, as one theologian has described it. Just for a moment I could feel my finger tighten on the trigger. I didn’t shoot. Of course I didn’t shoot. First of all, I am sure I would not have been very good at it. Second, it is not what journalists do. I am not a fighter. I handed the rifle back to the Northern Alliance soldier, who asked me teasingly, suppressing a laugh, Why you are not shooting, Mr. Charles?
In the aftermath of 9/11, America has to ask itself questions now about what is justice and what is revenge. How do we ever relinquish our hold on the justifiable anger we feel at seeing our country attacked in such a cowardly and wicked way as to kill 3,000 civilians on a beautiful September morning? Or more recently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and who knows where next? There are moments in war, even for the journalists there, when these questions are dramatically framed, questions that go to the core of our faith and the core of who we are as individuals and as a country.
For me, one of those scenes unfolded just last spring in northern Iraq. I was there covering the war for The Boston Globe and working alongside my brother Rick, a talented photojournalist. It was April 10, the day the city of Kirkuk was liberated. Rick and I had a carefully designed plan for covering it on our own. Like all plans in war, it fell apart in the chaos of pushing past the collapsing frontlines. We were separated in the confusion. We did not know it, but we were both drawn to the same spot, the smoke and flames of an oil well fire in the vast oil fields that made Kirkuk one of the biggest prizes of the war. The draw was a kind of primitive journalistic response, like moths to a flame.
Rick got to Kirkuk ahead of the U.S. Special Forces. The Iraqi army was surrendering all around us, and the allied Kurdish fighters were moving in. But a ragtag group of Arab volunteer fighters known as the Fedayeen were intent on a last battle. In a warped interpretation of Islam, they had been promised paradise if they died fighting American infidels, which in this case apparently included unarmed journalists. For one harrowing moment, Rick became the target of the Fedayeen. Two guerilla fighters were stalking him.
One of them raised a Kalashnikov machine gun and was shot by the Kurdish forces. Another fighter, holding the pin of a grenade in his mouth and another grenade in his left hand, charged at Rick. My brother ran for his life and narrowly escaped. He was badly shaken. The man holding the grenades was killed as Rick sped away. The other fighter was left for dead.
But on this road there was an intersection of fate. One half-hour after Rick had fled, I was traveling down the same road and found the Fedayeen soldier dying. As our driver pulled over, we saw Kurdish soldiers kicking the man in the head. It was brutal even amid the brutality of war. The fighter was disarmed, had a wound to his chest and needed medical attention. I was with two other colleagues, and we asked the Kurdish soldiers to take the man to the hospital. They looked at us angrily and said, Fedayeen. They tried to kill Americans! We insisted that the man be taken to a hospital. The last image I have was of him being bundled into the trunk of a beat-up old car and driven away. We later learned that he lived.
I did not know that the man whose life I was trying to save had just tried to kill my brother. It was only a few days after the event that Rick and I had time to go over the story and his photographs and put it all together. Would I have tried to save him if I had known that just moments earlier he had been trying to kill my brother? Would I have been able ever to forgive this dying man if he had killed my brother?
I do not know the answers to those questions. There is nothing hypothetical in something as wrenchingly difficult as forgiveness. But I have seen remarkable scenes of forgiveness in a region as seemingly unforgiving as the Middle East. Myrna Bethke, a pastor whose brother was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11, traveled all the way to Kabul and has described forgiveness of the perpetrators as lifting an enormous weight from her. You are free to live again, she said.
If we as a country want to move beyond the agony of 9/11, we could learn a lot from Myrna. We need to seek justice. Crimes should have consequences. But we also need to ask questions of the spirit. I do not think global politics or counterterrorism or even military might will get us beyond 9/11.
In the context of Iraq, should we ask forgiveness for the years of support we gave to Saddam Hussein’s regime in the late 1980’s, or how we looked the other way when Saddam carried out a chemical attack on his own people, because back then he was a de-facto ally in the Iran-Iraq war? I think if we could bring a dimension of forgiveness into our approach to the Middle East, it could be an opening. As a priest once told me, just to want to forgive is a great beginning.
As Robert Frost wrote: Forgiveness is not a denial of human responsibility; rather it rests on the moral judgment that an act was wrong. Forgiveness is compatible with justice, never with vengeance.