Reconciliation over retribution

Nations that cross the boundaries of civilised behaviour can only give lasting wounds, not lasting solutions

Published - November 02, 2023 01:05 am IST

An interfaith peace rally held by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders in Marseille, southern France, on October 24, 2023.

An interfaith peace rally held by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders in Marseille, southern France, on October 24, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The image of shattered solar panels in Gaza amid billowing smoke is a grim reminder that peace is a prerequisite for progress. If the political leadership of the world cannot ensure a peaceful present, how do we expect them to protect us from other threats like “global boiling”? Francis Bacon in his essay On Revenge describes revenge as “a kind of wild justice.” ‘Wild’ means raw or not regulated by judicial restraint or civilised conduct. Revenge is an act of retaliation implying an earlier act of provocation. Even if that is the case, and whatever its irrationality, an act of vengeance by the establishment can never be justified like the earlier act. The state can punish an unlawful act through its statutory organs but can it subject an entire community to retribution by mindless annihilation? There cannot be any apology for the perpetrators of violence but the responsibility of the state lies in bringing them to justice as administered by the strong arm of law and not in bulldozing its way in a manner that grinds everything to dust.

Revenge may never be able to settle issues, let alone settle scores. It creates its own vicious cycle, a chain that keeps adding links to an unending series of self-destructive events. The human mind is designed to react but it also possesses the capacity for restraint. Animals understand risk and restrain themselves if they perceive an action as risky. But take away restraint from a human being and you remove the foundation of social behaviour. The laws of any land, international law and treaties bind people and countries to acceptable conduct. Its absence would lead to disorder and unmanageable conflicts. Nations that cross the boundaries of civilised behaviour can only give lasting wounds, not lasting solutions, even as they achieve the myopic objective of causing mayhem by taking revenge.

Nobody should be forgiven for acts of terror but even the anachronistic Hammurabi code demanded “an eye for an eye”, and not the entire human body. Gandhi thought that even that would make all of us blind in the long run. He was not a preacher but a practitioner of non-violence who was ultimately able to defeat the worst form of colonial violence where others who followed retaliatory tactics, were defeated. Recall Gandhi’s response in South Africa when a police officer’s wife saved him from a violent mob that manhandled him upon his return from India. When asked to lodge a complaint against those who used force against him, he refused because that would fuel acrimony and cause a scar difficult to heal. His accepting their behaviour as a manifestation of deviant conduct not meriting his response had a greater chance of not perpetuating animosity between the two communities.

It is possible that in the real world, this behaviour is dismissed as fictional. It may not be held viable in statecraft too although there are examples where cooperation has lasted longer than divisive action that has invariably led to permanent conflicts. Forces of unity and adjustment provide longer lasting solutions. In the short run, the ability of an individual to subdue his opponent and a nation’s success in subjugating a community might seem as a triumph. Still, it might not be so easily possible to extinguish subterranean sentiments that take their own time to erupt. Inhuman destruction generally leaves cinder that smoulders underneath.

It is the responsibility of the judicial system to punish the offenders and that of governments to find solutions to minimise conflict. Lack of efforts to find consensual solutions gives opportunity to fringe elements to rise and be perceived as crusaders for a cause and creates disorder. This invites the wrath of law thus discrediting the cause and giving the establishment a legitimate ground to retaliate. The champions become the quarries along with the cause and the wave of government retaliation causes more collateral damage nullifying the legitimacy of its action. This is the vicious conundrum of violence that gives those in power, the image of being ruthless, inconsiderate and disproportionate in their response to acts of unlawful aggression by the fringe. Encounters staged by the police against hardened criminals might be approved by a frenetic crowd but this is not sustainable for a civilised society. The establishment must punish as per due process but not as a desperate avenger.

Retaliation has a strong logic that sounds convincing when passions are inflamed. The forces of evil inflict indiscriminate injury, invite the wrath of the victims and approval for consequential action however disproportionate. We crave instant justice but an exchange involving more innocent deaths can never be fair. Such an exchange does entail unintended casualties of the innocent being used as shields. So, while the first set of deaths were of innocent victims, the second set of innocent unintended victims is a price people are willing to pay in order to carry out a seemingly justified retaliation. In the heat of the situation, nobody has the patience to go to the root of the problem and the manner in which grievances are allowed to take the form of ghastly terror.

One of the strengths of an effective administrator or an empathetic human being is the ability to retain equanimity and restraint in any situation. Those in power cannot act as angry bystanders or the instruments of nemesis due to their inflamed egos. The unreasonable hubris of a sovereign can only lead to retribution, not reconciliation. Dialogue is the only reasonable way forward in a civilised world where might can’t determine who is right.

Ashok Lavasa is a former Election Commissioner and former Vice President of Asian Development Bank

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.