Archive for December, 2011

Forgiving and Not Forgiving

Robert Karen

The Forgiving Self, pg. 1

                In one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War, a small girl is running naked down the road, with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off and her body scorched by napalm. The man who coordinated the raid on this child’s village in June, 1972 was a twenty-four-year old U.S. Army helicopter pilot and operations officer named John Plummer. The day after the raid, Plummer saw the photo in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and was devastated. Twenty-four years later Plummer told an Associated Press reporter: “It just knocked me to my knees. And that was when I knew I could never talk about this.” The guilt over the bombing raid had become a lonely torment. He suffered periodic nightmares that included the scene from the photo accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.

                The girl in the photo, Pham Thi Kim Phuc, survived seventeen operations, eventually relocated to Toronto, and became an occasional goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at a Veterans Day observance in Washington, not far from his home.

                Kim’s speech included the following: “If I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present …” Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note: “I am that man,” and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her, and soon they were face to face. “She just opened her arms to me,” Plummer recounted. “I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say is, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.’”

                “It’s all right,” Kim responded. “I forgive. I forgive.” Five months later, still connected by their peculiar history, the two were shown in an AP wirephoto, their heads touching, almost cheek to cheek, his arm around her. Both smiling with an almost incongruous delight, as if he had never ordered the raid that left her body scarred and in permanent pain and he did not live with recurrent nightmares.

                The need to be forgiven is a profound factor in our lives. The story of the pilot and the girl touches us because that need lives so strongly in us, and it is rare that we see it played out in such direct and dramatic form. And yet in our everyday lives we are touched by forgiveness and haunted by its lack in a myriad of small and often unnoticed ways. Can we be forgiven our insensitivity? Our cruelties? Our betrayals? Can we be forgiven for having critically, damagingly, let someone down? Can we be forgiven the things in us that feel so terrible we dare not speak them? The feelings of others contribute to how we define ourselves to ourselves and often it is through them, their tolerance, their perspective, their generosity, that we are able to forgive what had seemed unpardonable in us before.


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