Republican US Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln invoked Jesus Christ when he said in June 1858 that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Lincoln’s radical campaign speech against slavery, racial discrimination and violence may have lost him a Senate seat – Illinois legislators voted to send pro-slavery Democrat Stephen Douglas to Congress instead – but Lincoln would go on to win the presidency and a bigger war. He has been inspiring generations ever since.
Lincoln made the legal and moral argument that no American government can or should deprive citizens of their civil rights. He believed in inalienable rights and that all men are created equal. President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was quickly followed by the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments. It would be another 100 years before the amendments got a full set of legal teeth to further protect American civil and voting rights.
Political and constitutional reforms based on sound moral, ethical and legal arguments still resonate, despite the self-imposed tsunami of cynicism that can often drown out optimistic, practical and civic-oriented solutions for our shared 21st century challenges.
Choice, People Power & Action
The tsunami of cynicism appears to have slowed recently when we were forced to choose between comforting inaction or embracing people power and community action. The Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls raised international awareness about the shocking news that hundreds of Nigerian school girls were kidnapped by a radical and violent religious fundamentalist group. The tweets developed into an international campaign which is pressuring the Nigerian president to start a coordinated search for the kidnapped children.
Three other shocking events took place recently: Pakistani religious extremists reportedly crucified two men. Sectarian violence erupted at an Under-17s football final in Glasgow for the second year in a row. And a former US governor served up her own brand of religious violence by equating Christian baptism to waterboarding.
On 4 May 2014 people were again shocked – and many relieved – upon hearing the news that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) freed Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams – ending five days of razor sharp tension and passionate head and fist shaking in Belfast, Boston and beyond.
Adams was arrested without charge last week after voluntarily appearing at the Antrim police station to answer questions regarding the 1972 Provisional Irish Republican Army abduction, murder and secret burial of Jean McConville, a widowed Belfast mother of 10 whom the IRA branded a British informant.
Tensions, Treaties & Forgiveness
Like many Americans with Irish ancestry (my grandparents hail from the Republic of Ireland) I have family members who participated in and/or were impacted by the violence in Ireland, north and south of the border. And like others who experienced the IRA bomb detonated at night in London’s financial district it’s not something I can or want to forget. Violence changes people and it has given me a deeper understanding of the power of forgiveness.
I was concerned that Adams’ arrest and extended detention on the eve of European Parliament elections, in which his Irish nationalist party is expected to win three seats, would threaten the peace, stability and good will created in many parts of Ireland and Britain through respect and forgiveness.
No doubt Adams’ arrest brought back painful memories and strong emotions, including for Americans who handed over money and weapons to the IRA since the modern conflict began in the 1960s. I wasn’t an American donor but I did attend Irish cultural gatherings in New York City and Yonkers where donations were clearly not meant for tipping the barkeep.
What were they thinking?
Adams, 65, was detained under British terrorism laws last week following the arrest of Ivor Bell, 77, at his Belfast home in March 2014. Both arrests came in the wake of a 2012 landmark US Supreme Court case in which Boston College was ordered to handover to the British government transcripts and audiotapes of confidential academic research interviews with Irish republicans and British loyalists involved in the violence, peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland.
Are the American donors who helped fund and arm the violence in Northern Ireland also being questioned by the PSNI, other members of the British government or the US Department of Justice? Are American donors to the IRA also being investigated for conspiracy in the abduction, murder and secret burial of Jean McConville?
Does the Obama administration understand the impact it has made to American civil society by citing the US-UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty as the basis for advocating on behalf of the British government in US courts instead of preserving American academia’s First Amendment rights? It appears the Obama administration ignored the fact that the treaty allows for US non-compliance, particularly if compliance ‘would be contrary to important public policy’ or if a legal request relates to an ‘offence of political character’.
The important public policy and political issues relating to First Amendment rights, the sensitive history, enormous contributions of the Irish in America and peace in Northern Ireland seem irrelevant to the White House. As a result, the US government has knowingly helped peel off the thin scab atop Northern Ireland’s deep wounds caused by centuries of violence, racism, mistrust and death.
I’m unsure any of us will ever understand what President Barack Obama, US Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were thinking in May 2011 when they authorized the US Department of Justice to issue the first of two subpoenas to help the British government reach into Boston College archives and snatch the life out of American academic freedom. But then again, ‘What were the Americans thinking?’ is now a common refrain as heads – and fists – continue to shake around the world.
Community, Peace & Reconciliation
Adams’ arrest and the immediate tension it caused remind us that the world is connected and people care deeply about peace. Many can relate to the fear and pain involved with coming to terms with past violence and trauma – whether in our homes, classrooms, churches or throughout our communities. When religious, sectarian or political violence invades our peace and stability we should look for help from our friends while continually reaching out to those who seek to harm us.
South Africa, which goes to the polls in two days, continues to remind us about the power of peace, truth and reconciliation. South Africans show us that looking to the future does not preclude denying the past.
So when I heard the news that Adams was released without charge I turned to music and threw on The Eagles’ When Hell Freezes Over 1994 reunion concert. The band may have broken up in 1980 after a backstage visit by US Senator Alan Cranston’s wife but their reunion concert focused on forgiveness and embracing life.
At one point Don Henley remarks that ‘Heart of the Matter’, a song he created with Mike Campbell and JD Souther, ‘took 42 years to write and about 4 minutes to sing.’
Adams’ arrest took place after more than 40 years of religious and sectarian violence, and in about four days it nearly ended peace in Northern Ireland.
While I believe in justice for Jean McConville and other victims of sectarian and religious violence there may be some harsh realities that are best left to forgiveness. That being said, I disagree with The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland who slid down the slippery slope of appeasement earlier this week when he wrote that peace trumps justice in Northern Ireland.
We should never be afraid to seek truth and demand whatever justice society can lawfully impose on those who commit heinous crimes, especially during war. The 2013 Haass proposals for Northern Ireland offer a good starting point for fleshing out ways to deal with the past, victim’s rights and the legal means to search for truth, justice, peace and reconciliation – something all the parties in Northern Ireland deserve.
Henley, Campbell and Souther’s lyric ‘Forgiveness, even if you don’t love me anymore’ is as wise and insightful as Lincoln’s ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ ‘Forgiveness’ may be the perfect Eagles song to play in Northern Ireland this week as we raise our glasses to their peace and the cooler heads which seem to have prevailed, at least for now.
So with my glass raised, a toast: ‘To us! One family, one house – undivided.’
Rachel Cunningham is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia where she is researching contemporary foreign policy. Rachel graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and is a former journalist. She currently resides in Hanoi, Vietnam. Follow her on Twitter @RCHanoi.