Collective Guilt

Between the last several readings, I’m seeing a common issue running all through the legal and philosophical issues raised in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Death and the Maiden, Long Night’s Journey into Day, and now coming to a head in Country of My Skull. How do we legally deal with situations where we aren’t sure where to put the guilt and blame?

Obviously this issue existed in the case of the Nazi Holocaust, and so the Eichmann trial butted up against it to some degree. His defense rested on the idea that he acted with no malice and was essentially following orders. This implies a shifting of the blame for his crimes from himself to the collective Nazi party, or at the very least his superiors. But the idea wasn’t fully developed as in fact there was one man on trial and one man punished.

Moving to Death and the Maiden, We again saw a single man on trial (if we may call it that) for his crimes, but it is set against the backdrop of a country that has instituted a truth commission and is unsure how to apply legal blame and punishment for crimes. It is argued by Gerardo that they cannot punish Roberto because the only way the country is able to keep from descending into chaos is by granting general amnesty. There are just too many people implicated in the old regime. Lurking under that whole play is the idea that the entire old Chilean regime is guilty and thus cannot be punished. It’s neither practical nor possible.

Moving to South Africa, this idea finally comes fully out. The entire Apartheid regime has essentially collapsed and lost power, but it’s legacy lives on. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is granting amnesty for crimes in exchange for truthful testimony of them, but for Krog, it is apparent that the real problem South Africa has is that it is so hard to draw the lines of guilt. while there may be relatively few literal perpetrators of the crimes of Apartheid, there are many thousands of beneficiaries of those crimes.

“In a sense, it is not these men but a culture that is asking for amnesty” (Krog, pg 121)

Krog goes on in the same chapter to talk about how people reacted to her presenting her ideas of collective guilt. She tells of several people who called into her radio show, outraged that she was saying that they were guilty of the horrible crimes of apartheid. Their claims were some version of “I am not guilty of the crimes of murder/torture/rape/etc. because I did not commit them. my benefiting indirectly does not make me complicit or guilty.”

Krog seems deeply conflicted about this idea but I think she ultimately decides that there is some level of guilt held by the beneficiaries of those crimes. Personally I am far from convinced that this is true, but leaving that aside for the moment, I don’t think it’s practical or helpful. How can you punish a whole culture? How can you punish people who didn’t actually DO anything? And if you start going down that road, where does it end? If you look hard enough, and carry that idea all the way, aren’t we all then somehow guilty of everything? Don’t we all as people carry the guilt of every terrible thing that has ever happened, simply because we exist in the same broken world as everyone else? If you start with collective guilt, where can you stop? I don’t think you can. And so wether collective guilt is real or not, it seems impossible and impractical for the law to punish. This is a limit to the law. Right or wrong, law doesn’t have the power to walk down that road.

Force or Choice?

I was confused at first as to why Krog would include a story from her personal life in her accounts of the amnesty cases in Country of My Skull. The story of her brothers and the cattle thieves in Chapter 1 seemed unrelated to the topic of the book for me. That is, until her brother used the word ‘force’ and it reminded me of something in Long Night’s Journey into Day. When the film reviews the case of the Gugulethu 7, one of the perpetrators, Thapelo Mbelo, who was a part of the Vlakplass police force, says “I was forced to do it.”.  Mbelo is being confronted by the mothers and wives of the men who were killed. One of the women accuses him of selling his blood, giving up his black brothers and sisters in exchange for money. And he agrees, but he says he had to take orders and he is asking for forgiveness because he was the one being told, not the one doing the telling. One of the mothers says that he did not have to go against his own community but he still implies it was the government that ultimately ruled him to do the killings. Same with Robert Mcbride who was a policeman who bombed a restaurant and killed three women. He, too, says that he was pressured to do it and that he only wanted to assist in ending apartheid; he thought that the government was trustworthy. Both allude to the authority of the government as reason for their actions. But some, like the mothers of the Gugulethu 7, would argue however that in the end these men still had a choice, even if the government made it their only choice. 

Similarly, in Country of My Skull, Krog tells of how her brother was ‘forced’ to kill the cattle thief. He says, “He who is trespassing and breaking the law – by running away, forcing me to shoot him – he is forcing me to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger… and I hate him for that,” (16). He claims that the thief is forcing him to do it. But again, it is technically his choice. He could have taken another course of action, but Krog suggests that this is the only choice that will make the thieves learn, because in their society there would be no repercussions for the thieves unless the brothers had taken action themselves. 

In all of these situations, the men claim to have been forced to kill another person. Though, some would argue that they had a choice. It may not have been an easy choice, but it was still a choice. The government provided them with the option of taking another person’s life, or risking the lives of their families. So is this still considered force?

The TRC – Just or Unjust?

While reading Krog’s “Country of My Skull” and watching the documentary “Long Night’s Journey into Day” I was very focused on the portrayal of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in both. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, prior to watching and reading about South Africa and the violence within its apartheid society, I was completely unaware of it. The TRC especially interested me, because it is very different from the justice system here in the United States. The United States is primarily focused on incarceration (although many say it is also focused on rehabilitation) – while in South Africa it is shown that the TRC’s main focus is reconciliation as a form of justice.

One thing I think is a positive about the TRC is that the victims often get some form of closure. In the documentary, the perpetrators were brought forth in front of the TRC and confessed their crimes to the families and friends of the victims. There were also scenes where the the families got to meet face to face with the perpetrators and gain some sort of explanation and apology for the crimes committed against their loved one. Similarly, in “Country of My Skull” the TRC was in place to offer some sort of reconciliation and to try and move forward from South Africa’s dark and disturbing past.

Krog tells a narrative of her experience reporting on the TRC, and although the purpose of the TRC is supposed to be positive, there are many upsetting and unjust scenes told within her novel. In fact, in the introduction Krog states “And while some victims and survivors of the apartheid government say their agony won’t end so long as perpetrators get amnesty and victims get next to nothing (reparation, for those who qualify, comes to less than $200 per victim), others say that learning how and where their loved ones met their end has provided a certain closure, a measure of peace” (pg 10). This brings up the question if the TRC really does provide justice or if it is inherently unjust.