When the US Holocaust Museum was being erected in Washington, D.C., the German government asked permission to create a museum of modern Germany nearby to show that Germany had repudiated its Nazi past.  That permission was denied.  This I regard as a tragic mistake, against an even more tragic background: our mass incarceration and increasingly drastic systems of “justice” that also arise from the failure of Americans – not all of us, but a controlling majority at present – to believe in the possibility of redemption.

Five years before the Museum’s opening in 1993, the U.S.S. Vincennes, operating in the Persian Gulf, mistakenly shot down Iran Air flight 255, killing all 290 people aboard. Minor technical improvements were made to the radar equipment to prevent mistakes of that kind in future (it seems the captain had misinterpreted some radar readings), but nothing was done to address the tragedy that had already occurred.  In fact, the then Vice President, George H.W. Bush, publicly stated, “I don’t care what the facts are; I will never apologize for the American people.”  The statement is as shocking for its jingoistic arrogance as its disregard of truth, but the man who said went on to become President and the posture that it represents is part of our national attitude.  It explains why, for example, it has been nearly impossible to discuss rationally reparations for African American or Native American people.

The refusal to allow Germany to escape from a dark past and the refusal – or inability – to apologize for tragic errors of our own are of course connected.  If you don’t believe a nation or a human being can change, that is, in the possibility of redemption, you will not be emotionally able to take responsibility for your own mistakes (as practicing Jews do annually at Yom Kippur).  In effect, you will deny yourself, as you have denied others, the possibility to grow.  One can almost hear the echo of Martin Luther King’s prophetic words that we may be becoming a nation that is “approaching spiritual death.”  But there is a way out. 

In 1976 the State of California explicitly turned away from rehabilitation as a role of its criminal justice system: officially from that time on its purpose would be punishment.  That’s called Retributive Justice; and a far more humane and effective alternative has been slowly, steadily taking hold.  For example, a few years ago, thanks to the shepherding of Rep. Pete Lee, the Restorative Justice Pilot Project became law in Colorado.  Here and there Restorative Justice is inching forward in various jurisdictions; to be sure partly as a response to overcrowding and/or the crushing expense of punishment and only partly out of compassion, a philosophical conviction, or the awareness of a different image of the human being.  Retributive justice is a trap; as Navajo Justice Herb Yazzie said in 2011, “You will never have enough jail space if your purpose is to punish.”

Restorative Justice works by allowing (I use the term advisedly) the one who has offended to take responsibility, to acknowledge the harm s/he has caused in a mediated face to face conversation with the one harmed, and to come to an agreed on solution which has the added benefit of restoring community in the process – often community members themselves acknowledge a kind of responsibility, e.g. for allowing community members to be trapped in poverty and/or failing to resist our widespread culture of violence.  It is spectacularly successful financially, in terms of recidivism – one program I participated in at San Quentin has a re-offending rate of 2% among its participants, compared to a national average higher than 70% — and most of all, in terms of the human spirit.  A young lady who turned her life around when a judge ordered her to take a Shakespeare class instead of doing time in jail said, “No one ever gave me a chance before.”  A dean who had been adamantly opposed to restorative practices for his school (“It’ll never work here, our school is too tough”) is now a fervent supporter of the practice because “Every time I used the old style of discipline I lost a relationship; every time I use this I gain one.”

Schools are in fact a place from which restorative practices can really grow.  If we were to transition the disciplinary systems of the nation’s schools to this approach, thus saving students countless hours of suspension (one school system in Santa Rosa, CA, went from 1600 suspensions to a handful in the first year of operation) and finally breaking the school to prison pipeline, there is no limit to how far the more humane culture that it represents could grow: from the school systems to the prison system itself to … who knows?

For this to work we would have to explain why the new culture (new to us, that is; it has long been practiced in many indigenous communities) is so effective: because it is based on a much higher image of the human being that’s fully supported now by all human wisdom traditions and much of modern science.  At the Metta Center that’s just what we’re doing: ‘acting locally’ on the community we’re based in, Petaluma, CA, and ‘thinking globally’ by promoting the ‘new’ narrative of human dignity every chance we get.

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Michael Nagler is founder and president of The Metta Center for Nonviolence and a frequent contributor to Tikkun magazine.


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