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  • Seeking the Between of Vengeance and Forgiveness: Martha Minow, Hannah Arendt, and the Possibilities of Forgiveness
  • Jill Stauffer (bio)

As the title to Martha Minow’s book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence suggests, Minow locates the road to healing of the trauma of mass violence somewhere between vengeance and forgiveness. This means that neither the violent reactive cycling of vengeance nor the “saintliness” of full forgiveness will suffice on its own. Yet there is a weakness in Martha Minow’s definition of forgiveness in this book, a weakness that becomes a structural deficiency of her argument, such that the argument ends by falling prey to a self-annihilating revenge structure. An equivocation of the term forgiveness and its attendant lack of futural orientation have the effect of foreclosing on much of the possibility, both individual and political, that forgiveness has — and this opens the door to the likelihood that vengeance will overtake forgiveness little by little. Given that Minow’s aim in writing is to offer up a set of tools for dealing with the aftermath of genocide’s injustice, this foreclosure of possibility has political ramifications. By way of exploring what Minow does and does not achieve in the work in question, this essay aims to think about conceptions of forgiveness in the context of recovery from genocide. To that end I will, following Minow’s lead, call on Hannah Arendt’s work on forgiveness, as it offers an interesting view into the choices Minow makes in delimiting the area of her book’s inquiry. In undertaking such a commentary, I will make what might be a controversial claim about Arendt’s intent in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem. I do this both to demonstrate the what is at stake in Minow’s choices and to show how Arendt refined her thinking about forgiveness and its possibilities over time.

Since Minow’s work accomplishes much that is good, I’ll start with a brief (and therefore non-authoritative) review of what she achieves. In Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Minow sets out to examine the range of institutional responses a state or its people can call upon in the wake of violent atrocity. Her project concentrates on genocide’s effects both on individuals and on states and their communities, acknowledging that the types of responses that can be offered or that will be effective will vary widely from person to person and community to community. She sets up a list of factors that affect the success of varying approaches to recovery — approaches as diverse as trials, truth commissions, therapeutic healing, and reparations. The list includes considerations of whether or not a project of nation building has promise, distribution of minority and majority groups, level of involvement of international and nongovernmental institutions, amount of time passed since the atrocity, whether or not atrocities were committed by both sides, and whether the new regime is a successor regime or the same regime that presided over the wrongs. The countless variables that can come to play within even this short list calls to mind the immense difficulty of the field Minow has chosen to explore. Laudably, Minow doesn’t try to offer an all-encompassing theory or “answer” to what is too complex a question to allow such solution. Minow insists, admirably, that her goal is not precision and indeed ought not to be:

Two reasons animate my resistance to tidiness. First, the variety of circumstances and contexts for each nation, and indeed each person, must inflect and inform purposes in dealing with the past and methods that work or can even be tried.... Saying that context matters is not the end of the analysis. Rather, it is the beginning.


Her goal is to develop a vocabulary for thinking and talking about these issues, a vocabulary that respects the harms done to victims and honors the memories of survivors while also aiming at rebuilding the lives of individuals, groups and nations.

A recovery that leads “between vengeance and forgiveness” is, for Minow, an institutional one. She asks, early on, “What responses do or could lie between vengeance and forgiveness, if legal and cultural institutions offered other...

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