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Adam Lanza is seen in this photo obtained and distributed by NBC News. Lanza has been identified as the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

Adam Lanza is seen in this photo obtained and distributed by NBC News. Lanza has been identified as the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

How do you forgive the unforgivable? Add to ...

I tell him I couldn’t have forgiven it. I would have carried my grief with me forever, as if it were my only possession.

The forgiveness industry doesn’t need a special time of year any more. Two decades after truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa proved that victims of apartheid and genocide might forgive their perpetrators, the movement is a juggernaut – everything from a school of therapy to a way to sell things.

Books, documentaries and websites about forgiveness proliferate. The Forgiveness Project, founded by journalist Marina Cantacuzino, has inspired similar ventures around the world. Her site posts first-person stories like that of Sokreaksa Himm, who in 1977, aged 14, watched Khmer Rouge soldiers kill 13 members of his family. By the age of 49, he had forgiven his tormentors. It took 35 years, but he did it.

“I began a new mission,” he writes, “one that still included finding the men responsible for the deaths of my loved ones but for a new purpose. I no longer wanted to seek their deaths, but to tell them of the life and hope that I found.”

Still, a few questions nag at the skeptical mind: What, exactly, qualifies as forgiveness? How is it possible? Is it necessary? Desirable? As therapeutic as revenge? Is it the same as turning the other cheek?

You would think we might have figured these things out by now. We certainly need to.

Some affronts are easier to forgive, because they are explicable. Last spring, in a courtroom in Brampton, Ont., a judge was reduced to tears when Edward Tamminga publicly forgave the killer of his 23-year-old daughter Lindsay.

She had been jaywalking when she was struck by the car of a 60-year-old father of four named Jose Cobaria. Mr. Cobaria left the scene of the accident, and did not turn himself in for two days.

“As Christians, we want to tell the court that we forgive him,” Mr. Tamminga told the court.

A remorseful Mr. Cobaria apologized publicly, and the judge gave him 90 days, to be served on weekends.

Mr. Tamminga credits his Christian faith. “We grew up with the Golden Rule,” he tells me. “Forgive others as you would have them forgive you.”

“It’s not always your first reaction, that’s for sure,” he adds. His voice never wavers. He was furious when he first learned of the accident, but as the facts surfaced, he felt he had no choice but to pardon Mr. Cobaria. The knowledge that he has killed someone, even inadvertently, will be “a life sentence, and we knew that,” Mr. Tamminga says.

“I don’t know if I would say forgiving him made the loss any less of a burden,” he continues. “But what it did was assure us that we did the right thing. We still miss her, but we don’t sit and stew on this guy who took our daughter away.”

He adds: “I think forgiveness speaks to that mysterious part of people, that separates us from our pets – that we have the ability to do something like forgive, as much as we have the ability to perpetuate atrocities. They’re at equal ends of the spectrum, but they’re both incredible.”

Mr. Tamminga believes that Lindsay is in heaven, “in a better place” and a very specific one, without the baggage and pain of the living.

Who would not choose to believe that if they could? But even with faith, forgiveness is sometimes impossible.

When Julie Nicholson’s daughter Jenny was killed on a bus in the London terrorist bombings of 2005, Ms. Nicholson – a vicar in the Church of England – renounced her ministership. She did not blame Muslims; she had no desire for revenge. But she could not bring herself to do what her church requires – to forgive the nameless zealot who planted the bomb.

Instead she wrote a book, A Song for Jenny , a deft description of the hole of anger, the fury of loss where her much-loved daughter used to be.

I read such stories slack-jawed, at once astonished and terrified. It’s lovely idea, forgiveness. But actually forgiving someone? That’s another, more complicated matter.

There have been other days like Dec. 14, 2012. One of them was Dec. 6, 1989. The date has gradually become less emotional for Laurent Haviernick, whose sister Maud and 13 other women at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal died that day at the hands of Marc Lépine, who thought feminists were ruining the world.

Mr. Haviernick was 24 and on his way home from work when he heard the dreadful news. He was himself a graduate of the Polytechnique, knew the building room by room, and could see what had happened clearly in his mind.

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