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“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr., 1958.

But where to find it? Where to even look for it this evening? The macabre chaos surrounding the death of Drummer Lee Rigby of 2nd Battalion The Royal Fusiliers late yesterday afternoon seems to have brought the darkness closer, provoking a response which mixes fatuity with venom and achieves nothing except the goals of those who want us divided and fearful; those who want us to blame others before we examine what we can do to make things better.

Judith Butler has addressed this in her book Precarious Life, arguing that the belief in a cycle of violence is one of the most fundamental obstacles to arresting it. Her observation that after violence ‘a narrative form emerges to compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of our physical vulnerability’ is borne out tragically by the headlines of newspapers this morning. The degree to which the designs make it unclear whether they are quoting the suspect or issuing his threat back to him is chilling in its endorsement of the inevitability of retaliation.

Butler asks ‘what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war’ though she concedes that she is unclear how ‘inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for global political community.’ My own answer is that forgiveness is a foundation of any possible solution. It meets many of the criteria Butler’s analysis implies, arresting the impulse to strike back, asking us to consider our response in the light of (as she puts it) ‘collective responsibility for a thorough understanding of the history that brought us to this juncture.’

Forgiveness is a concept that has been dealt with exhaustively but not at all effectively. In the course of developing this concept for the closing chapters of my doctoral thesis (an early version can be found on the Writing and Research page of this site) I looked at a range of responses by philosophers on the problem of forgiveness. The results were not edifying. For philosophers, it seems forgiveness is like the flight of a bumblebee to a particular kind of mathematician: something which, since it cannot be denied, must be explained away. Either an action is not sufficiently heinous to warrant forgiveness or the forgiveness is necessarily inadequate in response to a heinous act. In Getting Even, Jeffrey G. Murphy uses this impasse to develop what is almost a theology of the ‘vindictive passions’. In The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, a range of thinkers seem to go out of their way to put obstacles in the way of forgiveness, arguing that even if they might be inclined to forgive, they can understand a decision not to.

So what are those obstacles? Forgiveness seems to require a few things. Firstly, a genuine act of wrongdoing: there has to be intent in the wrong or forgiving it is illogical. Secondly, there has to be an admission of guilt or responsibility by the person asking for forgiveness, who must be the person who committed the act being forgiven. Thirdly, the perpetrator must make amends through a process of atonement. Finally, only the victim can give forgiveness. If, by the way, this is starting to sound like a cross between an RE class and a life insurance policy, then you have the measure of the debate. These criteria do, however, explain why murder is often regarded as unforgivable: because intention must be present, because full restoration of the wrong is impossible, and because the victim cannot (by definition) forgive their murderer.

There is, however, a reverse to this. The victim of a murder cannot forgive their murderer, but I could (and I hope I never have to learn whether I could do this) forgive the murderer for the victim’s absence from my life. Similarly, if the wrong were one which could be redressed simply then would it be worthwhile even raising forgiveness? If the only circumstances under which a principle was operable were those in which it was an exaggerated response then it wouldn’t be much use at all. Moral principles are almost always at their most useful when we resist their implementation: they are there to guide us to the response we know to be the best when our instincts pull us elsewhere.

Which raises one final question, and this is crucial in engaging with the debate over yesterday’s attack. Those who argue that no one but the victim can forgive need to answer a question: how can anyone but the victim blame?

UPDATE: The Guardian Reader’s editor on the Guardian coverage explores some of the issues raised here and is worth reading (like most columns from that source) as an explanation of how the media cope with these issues in real-time. (Added 27 May 2013)

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