Bob Davis: Reconciling our past misdeeds
Jul 04, 2010 | 2697 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Jan. 30, 1972, 13 civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland were killed by British soldiers. A report later that year mostly cleared the British soldiers of responsibility. Instead, it cast blame on the victims.

The tragedy spurred by conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland became known as "Bloody Sunday." It's been on my mind lately as I ponder how people and governments wrestle with culpability and shameful acts.

Bloody Sunday might be best known in the United States because of the 1983 U2 song "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It begins, "I can't believe the news today. I can't close my eyes and make it go away."

The whitewashed account, conducted in 1972 and known as the Widgery Inquiry, stood as the official version until last month.

The process began in 1998 when a public outcry persuaded the British government under the leadership of Tony Blair to reopen the case. Blair's predecessor, John Major, had rejected the same calls.

Twelve years and $300 million later, the results of the Saville Inquiry were released in 10 volumes covering 5,000 pages.

The most significant finding: The British paratroopers patrolling Derry that day in late January 1972 were not justified in opening fire on the marchers.

How did the government respond? Newly elected Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party said, "I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world.

"But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."

At the June 15 announcement of the findings, the son of one of the victims, Tony Doherty, said, "It can now be proclaimed to the world that the dead and the wounded of Bloody Sunday, civil rights marchers, one and all, were innocent, one and all, gunned down on their own streets by soldiers who had been given to believe that they could kill with perfect impunity."

He added, "We may hope that from today we can begin to bind those wounds."

That would be the point of the report and other efforts at truth and reconciliation in conflict-torn places like South Africa, East Timor and Chile. Humans don't need old wounds opened merely for the sake of watching them bleed. Proponents of these exercises say that true healing can't come unless there is an honest accounting of wrongdoing. Otherwise, alternate versions of the "truth" compete for attention.

Would it work in the United States? Could it be applied to the recent history of U.S. pro-torture policies that stand in opposition to our laws and values? It's probably too soon to answer that right now.

What about the civil rights-era abuses? Would it work in the South, where violence at the hands of government or, as in many cases, with the winking acknowledgement of the government, was common during the civil rights era?

Some Southerners can point to the civil rights cold-case effort led by the Justice Department and state government prosecutors and followed by a team of journalists. The work illustrates the vast number of acts of terrorism carried out against blacks in the South. Few were ever investigated, much less prosecuted, during the 20th century.

Other Southerners see it differently. I know many who would say let it be. It took a damn long time to get this far. To go backwards into the ugly past would stir up bitter feelings that can only do harm.

They would rightly say, we are no longer the place of water cannons, police dogs and rampant racially motivated lynchings that Americans saw on the evening news of the 1960s.

The millennial generation of Southerners born since 1980 is nearing a state of post-racialism, they say. The dividing lines now break along class, education and wealth, not exclusively black and white.

Maybe the time has passed the South by. Maybe reconciliation can be done in many forms.

What's clear is that no matter the route to reconciliation, the key part is expressed as a lyrical wish by U2, "We can be as one, tonight."

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or You can follow him on Twitter at:
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