Reconciliation: It Can Be Done


Below is the inspiring, symbolic photo of the Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuiness, formerly of the IRA and current Sinn Féin deputy first minister. 

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Martin McGuinness and the Queen

McGuiness and the Queen (Belfast, June 27, 2012)

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In Us, Them, and Non-zero Sumness, I wrote: 

It may not always be easy, but former enemies can reconcile. Peace is possible. Seemingly intractable conflicts can be solved when attitudes shift and old identities take on secondary importance to a newer, more inclusive, one.”

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I don’t mean to sound too pollyannish. Attempts to overcome interpersonal and intergroup conflicts would not be necessary without the problems we create in the first place. Furthermore, handshakes are merely symbols, not policy. But, they are powerful symbols. I’ve been compiling a list of examples of reconciliation here, incorporated into essays that explore this part of the human experience. I welcome any other examples you know of. Thanks.

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Robert McNamara and Vo Ngyuen Giap (Hanoi, Nov 1995)

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File:Gorbachev and Reagan 1985-9.jpg

Reagan and Gorbachev (Geneva, November 1985)

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One thought on “Reconciliation: It Can Be Done

  1. Yes, Patrick, some nice pictures of those responsible for a lot of real nastiness shaking hands if not exactly shacking-up. As you say, if they or their families or tribes had not started conflicts, there would be no reconciliation. But some snapshot moments are important bookmarks in history, as well as being part of the media industry and a statement to one’s own side on how to think, even if they no longer really give a damn.

    The snapshot of course is preceded by an enormous effort behind the scenes. I was myself involved in the US-Vietnam come together in Geneva, which started with both sides in the same building but in different rooms, with messages relayed through UN third-party on vital matters like who should be together in the same room, the famous table and seating arrangements and the precise timing of the first meetings — and the agreed text of exchanges (the whole thing could have been done by puppets, as of course it was). I don’t remember a point of handshake, but there was, after a couple of years a clinking of glasses for the photographers, by prior agreement of course. Such procedures allow enemies to test each other out — and if it comes to it to withdraw without any loss of face and blame the opponent. They don’t always work — even when the third party forces a handshake (Israel-Palestine being the classic example of ‘after the handshake’).

    Such formal ‘end of hostilities’ is well established in the same ‘ways of war’ that ‘requires’ a formal declaration of war. This is like fencing to the death but saying ‘en garde’ before making the first thrust or striking the first blow. That’s why Americans still get incensed about Pearl Harbour — they didn’t tell us they were going to do it!

    To a logical mind, the public handshake makes sense and is a win-win situation, the declaration of war does not make sense but belongs to a distant past where it was ‘sporting’ to give the potential enemy a last chance to withdraw before pounding him into submission. It’s one of those cultural ‘survivors’, like animism in a scientific world.

    The handshake is essentially western — it marks that your sword hand, presumably the right (therefore the suspicion of lefties) is empty of weapons. It must be between equals and is either a symbol that the parties will not resort to violence and meet with good intent (still important at introductions) or a recognition that the violence that has occurred is to be treated as forgotten.

    Looking for an oriental equivalent of a handshake is fruitless, it does not exist. Either on meeting or on ending hostilities, the action of clasping facing palms together shows hands are empty of weapons, but the first to make the action is the weaker. Still, in democratic Thailand, Thai TV every day shows rather sickening images of the lesser showing respect and surrender to the infinitely more powerful. If royalty is involved, a clasping of palms is nowhere near enough, more appropriate is to lie flat on the floor, eyes down, arms out, totally defenceless, and crawl across the room to the feet of the sacred image of the controller. If any verbal exchange takes place it is one language ‘up’ to the superior, another language ‘down’ to the inferior. As long as this master-servant physical position is retained, people know where they are. (In Japan substitute depth of bow.)

    Such symbolic action is part of every encounter between any two or more people. The idea of equality is there only in concept. For two people to raise clasped palms or bow at exactly the same time and exactly the same height is only theoretically possible. People within a family almost never do it — unless begging forgiveness or respecting a dead body before cremation. Not surprising the first thing the revolutionaries did after gaining power in Laos was to introduce the handshake (it was not a hand-down from the French) between equals. The king at the time gave up his position and shook hands with the ‘communist’ leader (in fact a distant family member) — although there are no pictures of the event.

    The handshake is said to have gained widespread use in Europe at the time when gentlemen stopped wearing swords. Perhaps if we had not progressed from the sword to the pistol and bomb, handshakes would still retain real meaning. One between the Queen and the man who ordered the murder of her family members was as much regarded with scorn as with an open heart by people in Ireland and in England. It was those at the top agreeing their troops will not kill each other for awhile. All in England know the Queen would prefer to see McGuiness with his head on the block! I still don’t know which of the two extended the hand first, but I do know it was as carefully agreed as the size of the table separating and uniting Americans and Vietnamese.

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