Study Guide | Theater

A Human Being Died That Night

Context
Truth and Reconciliation 

In 1962, the brilliant German philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann had been a crucial part of Hitler’s Final Solution, from its inception to his overseeing the deportation of nearly all of Hungary’s Jews to death camps. Eichmann had managed to avoid capture for nearly fifteen years before he was finally tracked down in Argentina by the Israeli secret service. In the piece that she wrote about the trial for The New Yorker, Arendt coined the famous phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. What was so striking to Arendt about Eichmann was not that he was a monster, an “other” who was a distorted and twisted version of humanity. To the contrary, Arendt noted that he looked and behaved like anyone else; he believed that he was someone who was given a job to do and set about accomplishing it like anyone would with any job. When Eichmann was found guilty and ultimately executed, Arendt, with some reservation, agreed with the verdict. This was not the time for forgiveness and empathy; for her, revenge was a necessary next step. As Roger Berkowitz writes in the Journal for Political Thinking:

Eichmann must hang, Arendt argues, neither because he broke the law, nor merely as a setting right of the scales of justice through revenge. He must hang, instead, because no human being must be expected to share the earth with him. He must hang, in other words, because what he did was so horrific that it must simply be rejected, eradicated, and said no to. This does not mean it should be forgotten, not at all. Rather, the world in which Eichmann's crimes could and did happen must simply be said no to. In short, Eichmann must hang because his crimes are irreconcilable with a civilized world.

In other words, the kind of mass murder perpetrated by Eichmann and his kind had to be punished in the most extreme way to express complete and total rejection of his crimes and of the ideals that gave rise to those crimes. For Arendt, Eichmann’s execution was the only way for a civilized world to move on.

Some three decades later, after the long nightmare of apartheid had finally ended in South Africa and the recently-freed Nelson Mandela was elected president, that nation was faced with a similar question: what was the best way to move forward, to leave the damage of the past behind without ever forgetting it? Surely, there must have been great temptation to execute vengeance upon the many white South Africans who had willingly and thoughtfully participated in the barbarism against the black population. Mandela, however, chose a different and radical course. He began the process by spending a year soliciting the input of constituent groups in South Africa, international organizations, human rights advocates and both perpetrators and victims of apartheid-era violence. The resulting legislation, known officially as the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995, established a remarkable body known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This group, which Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela was asked to join in its early stages, was tasked with investigating the histories of both sides of the conflict. Their ultimate goal was an open and honest discussion of what really happened, and why that would engender a sense of empathy and even forgiveness between former combatants. As Pumla says in her book, she came to understand through this process that the only way for a society to move forward is through tolerance and forgiveness: “…the work of the TRC suggests that cycles of political violence can indeed be broken, and there are alternatives to revenge and retributive justice.” Pumla acknowledges that South Africa still has a long way to go to be healed completely, and that many individuals still do not find it possible to forgive those who hurt them or their loved ones. But Mandela’s radical idea has proved to be extremely influential, and has caught on in many places around the world.

Fast-forward another two decades. In an already famous piece from the June 2014 issue of the Atlantic magazine, the brilliant young African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument that, just as Germany did for families of Holocaust survivors, America needs to make reparations to the descendants of slaves. Coates acknowledges that most Americans would consider that a crazy idea, since relatively few American families of 2015 profited directly from a system that ended 150 years ago. But Coates argues that the oppression of African-Americans did not end then, and has not ended yet, no matter who is sitting in the White House. For him, the financial aspect of reparations is the least important part of the idea:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

What we need, in other words, is our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The reparations themselves would not change anything; the open and honest exploration of the racial divide in this country is what would matter. Coates argues that although the lives of African-Americans have improved since the days of “Colored Only” water fountains, America will never be a truly free and equal society until we as a nation can sit down and have conversations like the ones that Pumla and Eugene have in the play.

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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on Forgiveness
 
 
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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the importance of the TRC
 
 
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South Africa, the US, and A Human Being Died That Night
 
 
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