Until a week ago, this was a season of forgiveness – the piney advent of a new year and a new chance to renew the world’s hope by turning over a new, more forgiving self. Hostilities abound, of course: 34 Americans are killed by guns every day, on average, to say nothing of the casualties of wars and revolutions in Syria, Gaza, Congo and elsewhere. Still, when the holiday season hauls around, usually the timid prospect of a less vengeful world foolishly pokes its head above the horizon again.
But there has been very little talk of forgiveness since Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six of their adult minders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Certainly no talk of forgiving Adam Lanza; nor his mother, whom he also killed, but who owned the outsized guns her son used.
The mere idea of forgiving such atrocious crimes seems unthinkable. But I will make you a wager: Eventually, not soon but before you expect it, one or more of the parents who lost their kids that awful December day will forgive the killer.
The question is why. They will forgive, not on religious precepts or out of human kindness, but because they have to – to make the life of their dead child mean something.
I suspect their reasoning will go something like this: If no one is forgiven, even for such a crime, then everyone can be blamed by everyone else, and no one will have to take responsibility for it. Then the progress we might have made, at such enormous and heartbreaking cost, toward preventing a future Adam Lanza from wreaking havoc on the world, will come to naught.
Astonishingly, people afflicted by tragedies as devastating as the Sandy Hook killings do forgive their perpetrators. Sometimes their stories climb into you and stay there.
Izzeldin Abuelaish tells that kind of story. An obstetrician and gynecologist, now based in north Toronto, he lived most of his life on the Gaza strip (where he was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp) while training and working as a doctor in Israel. He speaks Hebrew fluently and has Israeli and Palestinian friends on each side of that thin border.
In September, 2009, Dr. Abuelaish’s wife, Nadia, discovered that she had acute leukemia. Two weeks later, she was dead, leaving him with their eight children. The youngest was 6.
It was an especially bad time in Gaza. Hamas had been re-elected, and rockets had been fired into Israel. Israel had responded with a full-throttle blockade, weekly bombings of the supply tunnels to Egypt, and troops and tanks in Gaza itself. The bombing was severe enough that Dr. Abuelaish and the children hauled their mattresses into the dining room to sleep every night. By day, they stored them away.
Dr. Abuelaish understood that most Israelis and Palestinians wanted peace. He realized (though never approved) that desperation drove some Palestinians to suicide bombs and homemade rockets. He was able to imagine (though never support) the defensive fear that made Israel’s leaders respond with multiples of that force. He thought of the situation as a cycle of vengeful mental illness perpetuated on both sides.
Then, on Jan. 16, 2009, as his children were beginning to recover from the death of their mother, Israeli tanks shelled their home and killed three of the girls. One was Bessan, his beloved eldest; another was Aya. The third, Mayar, was beheaded in the explosion. Two other daughters were severely injured. Dr. Abuelaish was in the house when it happened, and was the first to find them. One thought played over and over in his head as he moved from room to room: This is the end .
A father in that position could easily vow vengeance, or disappear into permanent grief. Dr. Abuelaish did neither. Instead, he went on Israeli TV and explained what had happened. He renounced any desire for revenge. Israel’s prime minister saw the program and broke down in tears.
Dr. Abuelaish has since written a book, I Shall Not Hate , and created a foundation to encourage educational exchanges between Israeli and Palestinian girls. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Revenge is not going to change what happened,” he tells me. “Revenge destroys. We can’t treat negative with negative. I could want to get revenge against those who killed my daughters, but they’ll never come back.”
He had to forgive his daughters’ killers, he says, because it was the only way “not to feel angry, not to feel hate – I will never fill my body with hatred that will destroy me.” He says it fiercely, again and again, as if the words were a strap to hang on to.