At personal level forgiveness is always possible, and one should always forgive. Although many claim that one has no right to forgive harm that has been done to others, one must consider forgiving in terms of the well-being of society. Society does not need the kind of forgiving that goes with an endorsement of the evil that has been done to others or a lack of concern for the victims. That would leave the door open for the same horrors to happen again. Society needs forgiveness so that hatred is not perpetuated. Forgiveness means breaking the cycle of hatred.
Just as an individual can fall prey to hatred, so can a whole society. Yet hatred can disappear from people's minds. A stream can become polluted and poisonous, yet it can be purified again. Human beings can change, and if someone has truly changed, forgiveness is not indulgence toward his past deeds but an acknowledgment of what he has become. Thus, forgiveness is intimately linked with the possibility of human transformation.
From a Buddhist point of view, the basic goodness of a human being remains deep within, even if he or she deviates into a very malevolent person. The simile given is that of a piece of gold that remains unchanged even when buried in filth. There is always a possibility of cleansing the filth. This does not amount to ignoring the base quality of the filth but to knowing that it can be removed and that the gold within it can shine again.
By asking forgiveness, the criminal cannot hope to escape the consequences of his deeds, the gravity of his actions or the atrocity of his crime. Having realized the depth of his crime, his main efforts should be to try, humbly but to the full extent of his abilities, to create a counteracting goodness for the wrong he has done.
Society has a duty to protect people from being harmed, but has no right to exact revenge. Whether it is murder or legal execution, any killing is simply wrong. Neutralizing and preventing harm does not require vengeance and retaliation.
To react instantly with anger and violence when harm has been inflicted is sometimes considered brave and courageous. But in truth those who remain free from hatred display much greater courage. An American couple went to South Africa to attend the trial of five teenagers who had savagely and gratuitously killed their daughter in the street. They looked the murderers in the eyes and told them: "We do not want to do to you what you did to our daughter." These were not insensitive parents. They simply saw the pointlessness of perpetuating hatred.
Altruistic love is the ultimate weapon against hatred. A human being is not basically bad, but can easily become so. Our real enemy is therefore not the person who has fallen prey to hatred but hatred itself. There cannot be outer disarmament without inner disarmament. Each and everyone must change, and this process begins with oneself.
In short, contemplating the horror of other's crimes should enhance in one's own mind a boundless love and compassion for all beings, rather than hatred of a few.
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who went from a scientific career as a molecular biologist in France to the study of Buddhism in the Himalayas 40 years ago. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. Matthieu donates all proceeds from his work and much of his time to 30 humanitarian projects in Asia through Karuna-Shechen. You may learn more about him on his website, MatthieuRicard.org.