BONE TO PICK

Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge

By Ellis Cose. Atria. 212 pp. $22

What should we do with the past: Go back and address yesterday's injustices, or just forget it and move on? The question contains a dilemma, because to dwell on the past means running the risk of never getting on, but to forget the past may be impossible: Ellis Cose quotes Czeslaw Milosz as saying, "It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds."

This dilemma -- which lies at the heart of Cose's "Bone to Pick," a meditation on and investigation of the impulses that govern our engagement with the past -- is the one that truth commissions the world over have tried in varying ways to reconcile. And as noted by Cose, a columnist and contributing editor for Newsweek, there have been at least 17 such commissions, which, in turn, have spawned an international industry in post-conflict resolution, a burgeoning bookshelf and a mountain of testimonies -- none of which yet has provided a universally accepted method of dealing with a contested history.

The complex questions surrounding "forgiveness, reconciliation, reparation, and revenge" probably require a scholarship of jurisprudence, philosophy, psychology, history and literature. This is the kind of ambitious enterprise that the world's great religions deal with. But Cose meets the challenge, and "Bone to Pick" ranges over centuries of contested histories, across five continents, spinning individual tragedies in and out of collective traumas, seeking the nature of "forgiveness, albeit as a proxy for a larger set of values."

The strongest material in "Bone to Pick" is Cose's reconsideration of the Greensboro, N.C., massacre in November 1979, when the local Ku Klux Klan opened fire on a multiracial group of protesters demonstrating against conditions in the textile mills (the alleged killers were tried but not convicted in state and federal courts). Cose lays out the causes and consequences of an incident that remains a festering sore, pointing out the hypocrisy of those who celebrate history yet insist that others must forget the past and move on: "The same son of the South who clings so tightly to his Confederate flag, who argues for its continued relevance, dismisses slavery as insignificant in terms of modern problems."

Cose is best on American-centered issues such as the reparations debate, and his accounts of individuals on both sides of the death penalty issue provide a dramatic platform from which to view the impulse and consequences of the need for revenge. On the other hand, the lens with which he views foreign stories is not so focused -- readers without a good grasp of the history of truth commissions in Ghana, Peru and New Zealand might be left groping for more context. Cose is on sure ground, however, when assessing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, even though he commits some errors -- Nkosinathi Biko is the son, not the brother, of Steve Biko, and the name of the infamous "Prime Evil" Col. Eugene de Kock, South Africa's "most notorious enforcer" of apartheid, is spelled two ways in one sentence. Nevertheless Cose captures the dilemmas that country faces in its attempt to come to terms with its tortured history, as when he quotes the deputy chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission: "The international community can marvel at [former] President Mandela's ability not to be bitter. But it's helped tremendously by the fact that he doesn't live in poverty; he doesn't live in a shack."

The heart of that matter is: How do you restore the collective dignity of victims? How do you account for social injustice? Can the wrongs of history be redressed by financial compensation? These questions speak to the asymmetries of the economic and social order; they invoke philosophies of development, of affirmative action, of global social justice.

While reparations and restitution are fired by a moral imperative, it is often politics that determines the will to action. Reflecting on negotiations stemming from confiscation of properties by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Stuart Eizenstat, who served as U.S. special envoy for property restitution, remarks that "the lawsuits were simply a vehicle for a titanic political struggle." And South Africa's justice minister underscores the point, arguing that apartheid victims suing foreign corporations "may have all sorts of legitimate reasons to run to an American court, but it may turn out not to be the best thing to do if it were to put our economy through serious turbulence." These are the hard truths about South Africa's TRC, the "much celebrated" commission that "inspired numerous others in places as disparate as Peru and East Timor." What Cose doesn't mention is that in the run-up to the first democratic elections, the leaders of the white-dominated security forces told Nelson Mandela they would not provide security for the elections unless he promised them an amnesty for their past actions. Even truth commissions, especially celebrated ones, are not above politics.

The truth may be a prized (and politicized) commodity in the quest for social justice, but as Cose observes, quoting Czech novelist Milan Kundera, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." "Bone to Pick" is a timely reminder of that axiom and a useful addition to the canon of that struggle.