After over 50 years in the US as an immigrant from the UK, of which 40 have been spent in Washington, DC, I thought I had seen it all. Clearly, I was wrong. The mob invasion of the Capitol on January 6 was a historic first. Thankfully, it was followed by President Joe Biden’s peaceful inauguration on January 20. Democrats went on to achieve a majority in both houses of the US Congress. With the change in the political wind, America has a unique opportunity to borrow from three previous truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) to bring harmony where there is discord.
Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?
The most famous TRC was instituted by South Africa’s 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. The goal of the new TRC was to uncover the truth about human rights violations during decades of apartheid. The emphasis was on finding the truth from both victims and perpetrators, not on prosecuting individuals for past crimes. In this regard, it differed from the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted Nazis for their crimes.
The events of January 6 have exposed societal schism to the world. Now, the US needs actions, not words, to form a fully representative, multi-party equivalent of the South African TRC to deal with enduring injustices across the nation. The current American social problem is complex, multi-generational and multi-dimensional. As such, it is not likely to be easily or speedily ameliorated. However, admitting the problem in the style of alcoholics anonymous is a necessary first step to avoiding a looming cultural and economic civil war.
The fundamental problem in America is its broken education system. According to Pew Research Center, a large percentage of Americans still reject the theory of evolution. As per the National Center for Educational Statistics, 21% (43 million) of American adults are functionally illiterate — e.g., lacking the basic ability to use reading, writing and calculation skills for their own and the community’s development. The US may be the world superpower, but its poorly educated citizens often lack critical thinking and judgment. Seduced by demagogues, they have drifted into warring camps.
Many thoughtful Americans are worried about divisions in society. The December 2019 issue of The Atlantic was a special report titled “How to Stop a Civil War.” It examined “a nation coming apart.” The magazine brought together the nation’s best writers to confront questions of American unity and fracture. That issue has proved to be prescient.
Since the 2020 elections, the rhetoric in the US became increasingly toxic. Disinformation was rife, calls for insurrection came right from the top and the pot of anger boiled over on January 6. It may not be 1861, but disunity reigns in the United States. A TRC that digs out the truth might be exactly what America needs in a post-truth world.
Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
There have been three significant TRCs since 1990 in South Africa, Chile and Canada. The results of these appear to be mixed. In balance, they seem to have had a positive impact on the arc of the history of their respective societies.
The story of South Africa’s TRC is too well known to be told in full here. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, investigated crimes during apartheid to record the truth. The TRC offered amnesty to perpetrators of many crimes and rehabilitation as well as reparations to the victims. It might be fair to say that the work of the TRC allowed South Africa to make a peaceful transition from a horrendously unjust apartheid regime to a plural, democratic society.
Chile’s TRC predates the South African one. It operated from May 1990 to February 1991. The mandate of the Rettig Commission, as Chile’s TRC has come to be known, was to document human rights abuses that resulted in death or disappearance during the years of military rule from September 11, 1973, to March 11, 1990. Notably, investigating torture and abuses that did not result in death did not form part of the mandate of the Rettig Commission. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made why Chile’s TRC was the first step that led to last year’s referendum in which Chileans voted to rewrite the military-era constitution.
Canada’s TRC emulated the Chilean and South African ones. Between 2007 and 2015, it provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian residential school system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences. The TRC spent six years traveling to all parts of Canada and recorded experiences of 6,500 witnesses. It recorded the history and legacy of the numerous injustices perpetrated by the residential school system to the indigenous peoples. Its six-volume report with 94 “calls to action” has been accepted by the Canadian government and marks a watershed in the country’s history.
An American Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Unlike South Africa, Chile and Canada, America’s injustices and even its divisions are messier. There is no equivalent of an apartheid or military regime to investigate. Investigating only the injustices against the indigenous Native Americans or formerly enslaved African Americans would be too narrow a remit to renew the American social fabric.
America’s schisms include, but are not limited to, those in education, culture, geography, politics, religious beliefs, skin color and immigration. Just as Catholics and different Protestant sects interpret the Bible in various ways, Americans have radically different interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments. Like many reports, articles and documentaries have now recorded, social media has exacerbated the fractures in American society. Truth itself is in question and distrust in institutions is dangerously high.
The purpose of establishing an American TRC is to slow down, and potentially reverse, the steady rupturing of a fundamentally decent society espousing equal opportunity for all. To avoid the growing risk of a dystopian cultural war, the US needs to identify the problems it faces. If social media is exacerbating divisions, how exactly is it doing so? Is polarization in America based on resentment of the white working class against metropolitan elites, or is it the rural versus urban divide? If so many Americans are functionally illiterate, what exactly is going wrong in the education system? If social mobility is now below that in my home country of the UK, why is that so?
For a truth and reconciliation commission to be credible, it must not only identify problems but also provide solutions. Like its Canadian counterpart, it could come up with “calls to action.” Members of an American TRC must come from all walks of life, different political, cultural and religious philosophies, and have a reputation for integrity. In a partisan democracy with tribal political loyalties, they must not belong to any political party. Their core task must be to diagnose what ails America and what can heal it. Only then can this nation, which I have made my home, can be restored to its much-hallowed promise.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.