Allegations of the past must be addressed in the present for the sake of the victimsby A C Grayling / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Investigations into allegations about the notable dead—I have Edward Heath in mind, who might be innocent, and Jimmy Savile, who almost certainly was not—raise inevitable questions about justice. It could be pointed out that the fact that the dead cannot defend themselves violates the principle audi alterem partem—“hear the other side.” It is easy to attack a completely inert target: the accuser is immune to counterattack, and therefore indicts, asperses, alleges and vilifies with impunity. This, so critics of the accusers might say, is unfair to the dead, whose entire life is thereby blackened without their having a chance to respond.
Is this right? On the other side it can be argued that the dead are not silent. Their side of the story is loud in the record, which includes the voices of those on whom they had an effect for good or ill. They could have defenders and advocates now, who can put their side of the story on their behalf. Their defenders can counter-allege that accusers have axes to grind, or are lying, or are attention-seeking. Thus the alterem partem can indeed be presented, and if the principle is not being violated, no injustice is done.
The arguments on both sides are significant. But they recede in the face of the most important point, which is that when allegations are made about past wrongdoings, whether or not their alleged perpetrators are still alive, the value of addressing them lies in the present, for the living victims who still deal with the consequences, and for whom acknowledgement of what happened is a necessity.
This idea generalises from individuals who as children were hurt by people they trusted—by priests, for example—to the inheritors of human rights crimes such as those suffered by the Armenians of Turkey a century ago. When there is no acknowledgment that wrongs occurred, wounds do not heal. Recognition today of Atlantic slavery and the atrocities against Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe make a difference to the inheritors of those victimhoods. Turkey’s refusal to accept Ottoman treatment of Armenians is a festering sore.
Think what it would be like if you were wronged, and therefore complained, but no-one listened—indeed, turned their backs, or even punished you for complaining. Throughout history and still in most parts of today’s world, people in power—whether…