Jacque Derrida: On Forgiveness and Punishment

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Jacque Derrida: On Forgiveness and Punishment

September 3, 1939— World War Two had begun, and on this seminal day, the world plunged into a conflict that would redefine the workings of human association and justice. Surely, such a war of urgency and severity called into question (and for reform) the notion of a shared inter-state jurisprudence; marking also, for Jacque Derrida and his contemporaries, the first real instance of crime threatening the very notion of human morality—a “crime against humanity”. (Derrida, 29) Accordingly, discourse over a universal ethic or morality became problematized out of the absolute repulsion for the acts themselves, the weight of their monstrosity, which seemed to transcend all notions of a moral imaginable. The starting point here is as political as it is problematic, for the justifications of punishment—such as the need for protection against misconduct or rehabilitation of criminals—were no longer valid for punishing Nazi-related crimes. The atrocities of such a global conflict shattered all standard of justice; they were actions that could neither be punished sufficiently nor forgiven ordinarily: How might one (or a whole nation) respond? Who is the judge of these acts and on what grounds? What does such a notion of justice inscribe? Nevertheless, the rhetoric of forgiveness and punishment became prominent in the world as politicians and institutions alike began asking for forgiveness. For Derrida, it is enough to recall the Catholic Church’s plea for forgiveness of World War Two crimes, the plea of the Japanese Prime minister to Korea and China, the plea of Belgian government for neglecting to interfere with the massacre in Rwanda, and so on. On the grounds of these actions, accordingly, the notions of punishment and forgiveness are conflated by philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Vladimir Jankelevitch: “Punishment has something in common with forgiveness, as it tends to put a limit on something that without...
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