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Healing Over Vengeance
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

This past week the January 6 Special Committee held their final public hearing in their investigation into the insurrection on January 6, 2021. I did not hold the highest hopes when they began the series of hearings as I felt that the public had moved on; that the nation no longer had interest. However, after this latest hearing, I can honestly say my initial judgment was wrong. The hearings have shown a light onto the wickedness of the crimes that were perpetrated not only on that day, but in the months leading up to it.

One of the things I misjudged was how satisfying it has been to most people who have watched all or even some of the hearings to bring what was done in the darkness into the light and to actually begin to hold those guilty of subverting democracy to some level of accountability. What level or form of accountability is reached remains to be seen. There are some who, perhaps out of vengeance as much as out of a desire for accountability, want to see everyone associated with the attempted coup – rioters and administration officials alike – locked up in prison for a considerable amount of time.

I must say, after years of hearing donald trump demean and dehumanize people and call for everyone from undocumented immigrants to his political enemies to be “locked up,” I can resonate with that kind of desire for vengeance. Yet, as someone who is increasingly skeptical of our criminal justice system because of innate racist and classist discrepancies, I hold tremendous doubt as to the efficacy that locking up a bunch of people who obviously broke many laws will produce any kind of lasting change.

So, am I saying to let those who caused such great damage and harm off scot-free? Absolutely not. Not at all.

However, if we were to approach the attempted insurrection from a restorative justice framework rather than a punitive framework, then our questions would not be, “who is guilty of what crime?” Instead, our questions would include the following:

  • Who was harmed?
  • Who is responsible for causing that harm?
  • What would it take to repair the harm?

While a punitive approach centers prosecutors and other court officials and in most cases disregards those who have been harmed, restorative justice instead centers them and works to repair the harm more than inflict punishment, which in this case is more about retribution than healing. So, when we ask who was harmed in the attempted insurrection I can think of a long list of people:

  • the police officers who were injured – some for life, and all of whom have suffered and continue to suffer from PTSD,
  • the families of the officers who also suffer alongside those who were there that day,
  • Members of Congress, their staff, and the workers inside Capitol Hill who were forced to flee for their lives
  • much of the nation who not only witnessed a possible coup, but who have been endlessly gaslighted by former administration and campaign officials who have projected their own culpability onto everyone except themselves.

Wow, this is quite a list. And I can hear some say this is far too extensive to repair and too many people to make amends to. I will not pretend making reparations for this harm will be easy, but then again, repairing harm, holding those who have committed the harm accountable, and moving forward towards healing is never easy. Indeed, restorative justice is often refused by those accountable for causing harm because they would prefer not centering the victims of their crimes. They often want to serve their sentence and never be held to authentic accountability.

But we currently live in a broken and fractured nation. Real harm and suffering has happened. At the same time, I am fairly certain that very few of those who planned, participated, or incited the insurrection would be willing to engage in the work of healing – a work that would surely include a full admission of harm done and a commitment to educate insurrectionist-sympathizers as to the actual truths that have been and continue to be ignored or completely twisted. Yes, very few of us can see Mr. trump hosting a rally where he admits to all of his wrong-doing and then instructs rally-goers on the importance of democracy.

Still, even offering to the public the possibility of a restorative approach where those victimized by the harm were named while inviting those responsible for committing that harm were welcomed to accept accountability could provide something of a balm for a divided and fragmented nation. One thing I believe is that leaving this entirely to our criminal justice system, which is characterized by retribution and punishment rather than truth and healing, will ensure that those who have resources will likely escape any level of accountability and will leave a broken nation still broken and still divided. I would opt for healing over vengeance any day.

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