The kinship between the individual and collective levels of crime was frequently on display in the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s. There, police who beat black protesters frequently pleaded, “We were just obeying the law,” as must have been said by U.S. soldiers who enforced Andrew Jackson’s order for all American Indians to relocate west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. What remedy does an American government still owe for that Trail of Tears? In her Tikkun article “Decolonizing Restorative Justice,” Denise Breton asked the same question of her own Minnesota history: “Here in Minnesota we colonizers have not been held accountable at all for state-sanctioned, citizen-supported crimes against humanity,” namely the humanity of the Lakota peoples. She goes on to the radical suggestion that, by restorative principles, “every Minnesota realtor should be imprisoned for dealing in stolen property gained through murder.”
In their final report, leaders of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission confessed that they might have called political and judicial leaders to account for their support of apartheid law, but they failed to do so. Calling institutions and political organizations to account for crimes remains on the still-pending agenda of the restorative justice movement. Whether its advocates will ever be able to extend their philosophy of healing to the vast wounds of our national and global histories remains to be seen.