11/30/2009 06:05 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why forgiveness is overrated

"Haven't you," said a man who had just taken my heart and snapped it in two, "ever heard of forgiveness?" I was so shocked, I couldn't speak. What I wanted to say, what I would have said, had I been capable of emitting something other than weird mewling noises, which I wasn't, was that that isn't quite how it works.

Forgiveness, I wanted to say, isn't something you order, like a double macchiato and a chocolate muffin. You don't bark your request and get your instant get-out-of-jail free card, your "no worries, mate" or, if you're English, and not 15, or not pretending to be 15, your "please don't worry about it, it's all absolutely fine". Fine for you, maybe, with your slate-wiped-free clear conscience and your great-I-can-do-it-again spring in your step. But for me? I don't think so. And doesn't it, by the way, involve something called remorse?

I thought, with a little flash of pain and humiliation, of that conversation this week. I thought of it in relation to the Irish Catholic church which has, for decades (for centuries, actually) been committing crimes a bit more serious than being carelessly romantic. From 1975 to 2004, according to a report from the Irish justice minister, senior figures in the Catholic church, and in the police force, colluded in the sexual abuse of hundreds of children.

The current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has conceded that the sexual abuse of a child is a crime in both civil and canon law. You might, perhaps, think that someone who's read the New Testament might conclude it wasn't a great idea on other grounds, too, but we're clearly not talking about a nation of religious Einsteins. What we are talking about is a state-sanctioned squad of (presumably psychopathic) paedophiles who systematically set about destroying people's lives. But now, luckily, the Catholic Church is sorry.

Six thousand miles away, another prominent Christian is sorry. He's called Kaing Guek Eav, but he's better known as Comrade Duch. As head of Tuol Sleng prison from 1975 to 1979, he was the Khmer Rouge's executioner-in-chief. The prisoners in his care were beaten, mutilated and subjected to electric shocks, and then bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves. "I am," he calmly told a packed courtroom this week, "solely and individually responsible for the loss of at least 12,380 lives." And then he made an astonishing request. "As for the families," he said, "I am asking you to kindly leave your door open for me to make my apologies. May I meet with you to allow me to share your intense and enduring sorrow?"

There has, apparently, been no great rush. Which, perhaps, isn't surprising. There's hardly a single person in Cambodia who was not affected by the mass manipulation, and mass murder, by the Khmer Rouge. Everyone lost relatives. Many lived in (cramped, filthy, degrading) refugee camps for years and years. When you ask Cambodians about that period in their (very recent) history, they mostly go quiet. On a trip to the country earlier this year, our guide took us to Tuol Sleng, pointed to the torture chambers, and refused to go inside. And why would you want to? Why would you want to see the blood on the floor, or walls, or ceiling, that might be your father's, or your uncle's, or your aunt's? What can you say? That that was then and it's all fine now? But it isn't fine now, and I'm not sure it ever will be.

In a league table of corruption around the world, Cambodia holds the 136th place out of 147. I have never visited a country that feels so sad, and so defeated. It's a country that has swung from mass, murderous, enforced equality to a winner-takes-it-all attempt at mass consumerism where there are very few winners indeed. It's also a country in which no one has taken responsibility for any of the killings, ever. Comrade Duch is the first. Perhaps he's sincere in his remorse, and perhaps it is better late than never. But most Cambodians, I imagine (in as far as anyone can begin to imagine what it's like to live with that legacy) will look at him and think "so what"? Is there anything he can say or do that will ever make anything better?

Truly, it's hard to say. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had some success, but it's been slow, painful, and flawed. In Rwanda, the results of the Gacaca courts, established to assuage ethnic tensions after the terrible genocide of 1994, have been more mixed. The country, as my colleague Ian Birrell pointed out in this paper yesterday, is undergoing something of an economic boom, but relations between Hutus and Tutsis remain potentially explosive.

Forgiveness is not an act; it's a process. It can take years. It can take a life-time. Sometimes, a lifetime isn't enough. Sometimes, it's central to healing, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, it's beside the point.

Sometimes, as John Lydon (who I interviewed this week) sang, in his post Sex Pistols band, Public Image Limited, "anger is an energy". Sometimes, it's what gets you through. And sometimes it's the thing that drives you to swap the distraction of forgiveness-on-demand for revenge. The revenge, as that profoundly Christian poet, George Herbert, put it, of "living well".