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Memory as remedy for evil

Todorov, Tzvetan
June 4, 2015

Source: (2009) Journal of International Criminal Justice. 7:447-462.

It is often presumed that, if we remember the evil committed in the past, we can
avoid it today. However, there is no reason to conclude that evil is generally, on the decline. If we observe the process of production of narratives about evil and good,we can identify four main roles: on the one hand (i) the villain and (ii) his victim; on the other (iii) the hero and (iv) his beneficiaries. To this, one should add the distinction between (a)-us (our community) and (b) the others (those who are foreign, different or enemies). The sterility of calls to remember is rooted in our constant identification with. heroes or victims and the extreme distance We put between evildoers and ourselves. A survey of the French experience shows that to prevent a ‘repetition of events’ requires thinking about the circumstances that gave rise to barbarous acts, the motivations of those who were’ responsible and the means they employed: Consideration of the Khmer Rouge crimes (1975-1979) shows that terrible collective crimes. are not the work of sadists or the mentally, ill, but result
from reactions familiar to everyone. The Khmer Rouge dreamed of a purified society, purged of its enemies, at long last delivered from evil. The end seemed to justify the means. According to the author, it is wrong to believe that criminals are different from us, that they are ‘inhuman’. The difference between executioners and victims does not lie in the biological nature bf individuals: there is no DNA specific to murderers. Instead, it proceeds from the differing circumstances in which the destiny of one individual unfolds from that of another. How then should we react to evil? When tackling the problems of a traumatic past, we can pursue two different goals: to achieve abstract justice, through the punishment of the culprits, or to aim at the moral well-being of the persons living in the community affected by the Crimes.
Thus we can have ‘punitive justice’, which uses means such as executions and imprisonment, and aims exclusively at the application of the law, and ‘restorative justice’ which uses other means of punishment and pursues the moral well-being of the community, as was the case for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In sum, according to the author, the memory of the past serves no purpose if it is used to build an impassable wall between evil and us – we, who identify exclusively with irreproachable heroes and innocent victims and seek to drive the agents of evil outside the confines of humankind. In everyday life, we easily forget the harm we have inflicted, but hold onto the memory of the harm we have endured. The remedy must not consist in merely remembering the evil to which our group or our ancestors were victims. We have to go a step farther and ask ourselves about the reasons that gave rise to the evil. (author’s abstract)


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