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September 13, 2005

 

Considerations: On Making Amends

ATONEMENT
ATONEMENT


From a personal perspective, my reaction to the bombings of Afghanistan, even somewhat Iraq, was to experience feelings of guilt. I am aware of how linked this feeling was to that of fear: that having inflicted this suffering we deserved some retaliation. In other words, I observed myself and others as we experienced first hand the link between guilt and terror once we began to retaliate. I wondered how much of the anxiety being publicly expressed, such as about anthrax, reflected this guilt. And how much did this have to do with our government's inability to express remorse and responsibility for past and present destructiveness, for causing suffering, and thus leaving us all individually to contain immense guilt?

My thoughts then focussed upon a parallel association, a link between guilt and responsibility. It seemed to me that the intense aversion to the idea of governmental responsibility, perhaps all socially organized responsibility, in America—-for instance, Republican reluctance to take responsibility for those put out of work by industrial change and downsizing,as well as for other widespread public tragedies—-might be related to the suspicion that any assumption of responsibility is a tacit admission of blame.

But why is blame so onerous? Does the avoidance of blame throw doubt on the contention that recognizing one's destructiveness is not “hitting rock bottom,” that destructiveness may be only the externalization of the unbearable experience of helplessness? Then again, is the accusation of indifference in the face of suffering in some way conflated with causing it, as when the abused blames the witness, whose refusal to mentally receive and recognize the abuse is felt to be as great a betrayal as the abuse itself?

In any case, it seems that only when it is almost totally clear that there is no posssible onus of responsibility (blame) on themselves, as in external attacks or natural disasters, can Americans react responsibly or demand that their government do so. I wonder if the call for responsibility might be the most subversive one in America at this time, perhaps more to the point than “peace.” In these times, it is extremely doubtful that we have in our grasp anything approaching an adequate understanding about what would enable America, or its government, to find a new relationship to responsibility.

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