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Biden Should Appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

There are some who hold that Trump and several of his associates should be charged with crimes. Investigations are already underway in New York state, where the authorities are examining Trump’s taxes. Others suggest charging Trump with obstruction of justice, based on the Mueller report. However, locking up leaders of the opposition, not to mention a former president, will drive the country to the edge of civil war. One may hold that no one is above the law, but the situation calls for a rather different kind of justice.

Instead President Biden should appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These commissions authorize a group of people to investigate previous wrongdoings in a way that seeks to help society mend. Such commissions include the voices of those who experienced the wrongdoings as well as those inflicted harm, providing a forum where wrongs can be disclosed, examined, and confronted through education, compensation, or other forms of restorative justice. Unlike in a trial, the focus is not on reaching a verdict, but on airing grievances (victims get the opportunity to share their own stories, without cross-examination) and providing an opportunity for offenders to publicly acknowledge their crimes, meet those they harmed, and show remorse. As a recent Politico article put it, these commissions serve “as a form of both collective catharsis and, ultimately, accountability.” Also, the public nature of the work of a commission (whether through testimony, summaries, and/or findings) and associated education campaigns can help to promote understanding among those members of society who were not victimized.

South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, shortly after the apartheid government gave up power, following decades of brutal oppression. The commission collected 21,000 statements from people who suffered from human rights abuses at the hands of the South African police and government. Many of the statements were televised. Researchers found that “the commission was most effective at changing the racial attitudes of white South Africans by teaching them about the abuses Black South Africans suffered. This facilitated reconciliation because once the truth was shared, people could apportion blame and responsibility.” In addition to detailing atrocities, the commission’s final report made recommendations for reparations, political and social reforms, and, in some cases, prosecution of perpetrators.

Truth commissions and attempts to make reparations are not infallible — they can be politicized and they “can fail to bring about reconciliation when they do not incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences.” Even the South African commission, largely seen as a success, did not put an end to divisions in South Africa. Some victims were dissatisfied that the 1,000 perpetrators who testified received amnesty, and none of the remaining perpetrators have actually been prosecuted, even though over 6,000 did not testify and therefore did not receive amnesty. Furthermore, some of the victims still have not received their reparations. Frankly, this commission, and other such commissions, heavily favored reconciliation over justice. However, they engendered considerable healing, and they succeeded in averting large-scale violent conflicts.

President Biden should appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In keeping with the example set by South Africa, the majority of the testimony should come from those affected by the wrongdoing. That is, from people who lost loved ones due to Trump’s mismanagement of the response to the pandemic. From people whose loved ones died in hospitals or nursing homes without their family being at their bedside. From family members of health care workers who died after they had to work without the necessary personal protective equipment. From Americans who suffered from Trump’s racist rhetoric and support of violence. From parents and children separated at the border.

The Commission should invite Trump and the key members of his administration to come before it, demonstrate genuine remorse, and agree to do community service, in order to gain amnesty. Those who refuse should face their day in court.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of My Brother’s Keeper and Reclaiming Patriotism, among other books.

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