Michael Berg is the father of Nick Berg, one of the first American civilians to be abducted and beheaded by insurgents in Iraq. Following is a transcript of a speech Michael Berg gave on Sunday April 17, 2005, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, OK. — editor
Whenever some tragedy befalls an American, or a group of Americans, I feel guilty for not hating those who are responsible for it. It seems like I’m being disloyal, that it’s my patriotic duty as an American to hate America’s enemies.
During the Vietnam War, I found it impossible to blame the people of either North Vietnam or South Vietnam for being host to a war between two giant military machines.
When airplanes struck the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, my high school students wanted to know why. I didn’t tell them what I think most wanted to hear, that evil people from far away attacked us for no reason at all. Instead, I told them that communication broke down, or never was given a chance to exist, between two sides. And that when communication ceases, or fails to exist, violence begins.
I think at the very moment I heard of my son Nick’s brutal death in Iraq last May, I at once thought of vengeance, and simultaneously thought that were I to wish for immediate and equal retribution against my son’s killers, and feel justified in doing so, I would be in fact justifying his death, a retaliation for wrongs done by Americans in Iraq. And to that justification, I can never agree.
And what of their parents? Would I not then be justifying their vengeance against me?
I had a little more difficulty understanding the men who murdered so many innocent people here in Oklahoma ten years ago. But still, hating them, seeking vengeance against them, only seemed to keep the cycle of hate and escalated violence going.
In a course that I took at a nearby university to my house, in Immaculata, Pa., the course’s title was "Forgiveness: the way to love in a wounded world."
In it, I learned that when we seek to even the score, we rarely do. Mostly what we do is a little more than even it, at least in the mind of the one who withstood the evening. And so that person’s response is to even the score against us. And so it goes.
Crusades, the Moorish invasion, Charlemagne, the western occupation of the Middle East, terrorism and 9/11, the holocaust, the disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people, a suicide bomber, a bulldozed house and a young woman standing in front of it.
Where does it all stop? When does it all stop? How do we stop it? We stop it by being first to stop.
So I have stopped blaming and getting even. I have come to realize that all human beings, no matter where they live, are basically the same in what they want, what they fear, and in that they love and laugh and cry, and they value their family and their community, in whatever terms they define them.
I have learned that the line between good and evil crosses not between groups of people or even between individual people, but it crosses through the heart of each individual. We all have free will and are responsible for our actions. And because we have free will, we are capable of good and evil.
The men who killed my son are capable of good. And I, were I exposed to what they were exposed to, would be capable of the same evil.
It’s true that people react differently to the same circumstances, some with good and some with evil, but it remains that we all have the same capabilities. If we did not, then we would have built a fail-proof argument for the insanity plea: They had no choice.
The only thing that really matters is how I react, how you react.
So yes, I forgive the men who killed my son.
And I forgive George Bush, who stabilized Iraq, so they could enter and do their killing. And I forgive him for listening to the legal advice of Alberto Gonzales, who redefined torture. And forgiving Donald Rumsfeld the wink and the nod that torture is okay, on down the chain of command, until it reached the Abu Ghraib prison, and where it motivated retaliation against my son Nick.
And yes, I forgive Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld, too.
Let me tell you what forgiveness does not mean to me.
It does not mean that I am not angry with all of those people that I just mentioned, who I hold responsible for my son’s death. I am angry at their actions, but not at them as human beings. And I suppose I will always be angry at their actions.
It does not mean that I do not wish for those responsible to feel and express their condition, their . . . heart sorrow, over what they have done.
And for them to be open to reconciliation.
That I want more than anything short of having my son back, and I always will.
And it does not mean that I do not still seek justice.
Up until last night, I would have said that for the men who killed my son I wanted separation from society.
But last night, I heard some things that have made me think. And maybe I’ve grown a little since then. I don’t know. I’m still trying the ideas out.
But at least, restorative justice. At least I would like to see the man who wielded the knife spend the rest of his life working in a hospital, as Father Michael said, maybe with amputees, maybe helping them throughout the rest of their life.
And the American politicians who are responsible, I would like to see deprived of their power. And the American military and FBI who illegally detained my son and thrust him into a part of the war he was unaware of, they need to be corrected, too.
Now hear what I believe forgiveness does mean.
It means that I do not, when I forgive, desire to see harm – physical, psychological or emotional – come to any of these people.
It means that I restore them to the position in my life that they played before their evil acts. If I loved them then, then I still love them. If I valued their lives and well-being as human beings like myself, then I still value them.
And I learned that forgiveness is like quitting smoking cigarettes.
Sometimes, the evil gets to you, and you have to quit all over again.
Sometimes, you have to forgive over and over again.
I started out on my quest for forgiveness for two reasons. One was to confirm my lack of hatred for some of those responsible, and the other was to give up my hatred for those with whom it still haunted me.
I no longer feel guilty because I don’t hate. And I am well on my way most days to giving up the hate that occasionally lingers.
I am a man of peace. I beseech others at every opportunity to be the same. I cannot accomplish my goal with hatred in my heart.
Peace is forgiveness. Forgiveness is peace. They both are love.
And love, I’ve learned, is the only hope of healing this wounded world.
Michael Berg appears in the DVD Beyond Retribution — produced by Peaceful Tomorrows, taped in Oklahoma City on the tenth anniversary of the Murrah Federal Building bombing.