Agora & Polis

Forgiveness In The Republic


L. Rhodes

Kirstjen Nielsen did a terrible thing. If there is any truth to the reporting,[1] she resisted doing so. Far from exculpating her, that suggests only that she was aware of the wrongness of what was being asked of her, and then did it all the same. She did it, denied it, defended it, and in the end, her transgressions failed to preserve for her the position she had hoped to save. The President wanted even worse than what she, who had already suspended her conscience so far, was willing to do, and so he forced his Secretary of Homeland Security to resign.

It may be, as Jeffrey Toobin has said, that she will forever be remembered as "the woman who put children in cages." The example of previous executive branch officials, like Henry Kissinger or Oliver North, suggests that it may be easier to rehabilitate Nielsen's reputation (which is not to say her conscience) than Toobin supposes. Almost as soon as news broke of her resignation, people began to talk about the conditions of forgiveness — as, indeed, they have with nearly every flunky to come out of the administration, even if only in the implicit form of a job offer. Some will be only too willing to grant it.

For most American citizens, as Danya Ruttenberg wrote on Twitter, the worst of Nielsen's transgressions aren't ours to forgive. Rabbi Ruttenberg was responding to questions about forgiveness in the context of Judaism, but the same principle must apply in any context where we hope to render the concept of forgiveness consistent.[2] Properly speaking, you can only forgive the wrongs that have been done to you.

There is, as yet, no indication that Nielsen wants forgiveness, or is in any way repentant. Assuming her early reluctance stemmed from an awareness of wrong, she must recoil from the magnitude of what she has done. It is difficult to imagine how she could earn the forgiveness of families who were forcibly separated from one another for no better reason than to discourage migration, or of children who were caged, lost, shuffled about, neglected, abused, drugged, and experimented on. It is difficult to forgive a wrong you only faintly understand, and it will be decades before some of those children realize the full gravity of what was done to them.

Nielsen's transgression against the American people is slight by contrast. She has wronged us nonetheless. As the head of an executive office, her job was to act in our name. By signing off on the policy, she involved each of us (some willingly, but many of us against the dictates of our own consciences) in the inhumanities committed against its victims. Even if she never receives it from the direct victims of "family separation," some measure of forgiveness will still be available to her by the grace of the Republic.

But for those who feel impelled to forgive Nielsen on that count, there is a double bind. We have a responsibility — she has, through her policy, imposed a responsibility upon us — to her victims. The nature of social forgiveness is inevitably complicated by the indirectness of our relations to one another, and a republic is, above all, a social form of governance.[3] It draws its power from the consent of the governed, and so the governed inherit some measure of responsibility for the use of that power. We bear its wrongs in much the same measure that we enjoy its rights. Her wrong is, in part, our wrong as well, and people who forgive themselves for the wrong they've done others seek to grant themselves impunity for wrongdoing.

There will be some who are tempted to forgive Nielsen precisely because they hope by doing so to absolve themselves of that responsibility. But we cannot forgive ourselves for our part in the wrong that was done to migrant families.[4] To do so is another species of forgiving on behalf of the wronged. Only they can do that. And until they do, any forgiveness we might grant Nielsen will be next to worthless, the forgiveness of accomplices.


The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.

Those responses only infuriated Mr. Trump further. The president’s fury erupted in the spring of 2018 as Ms. Nielsen hesitated for weeks about whether to sign a memo ordering the routine separation of migrant children from their families so that the parents could be detained.


  1. Per the April 7th edition of the New York Times:

  2. The influence of Christianity on the ideology of American governance tends to obscure the necessity of that principle. Social, ethical and eschatological imperatives often converge in the mind of unwary Christians, transmuting the ideal of universal forgiveness into a willingness to forgive the wrongs done to others. The institutional history of the faith is rife with examples where victims were pressured to drop accusations against their abusers, and did so less because they were convinced by the encouragement of others, than to avoid being branded as recalcitrant when the rest of the congregation, seeing forgiveness and social unity as convergent aims, began to treat forgiveness as accomplished fact. In the secularized Christian ideology of American society, then, forgiveness is often regarded as an inevitability, and if the genuinely wronged cannot manage it, then the public will often undertake it on their behalf.

  3. Of course, government is not the only social form. One question debated in the wake of the abuses brought to light by #MeToo is that of how long a disgraced celebrity must wait before they are forgiven — by society, if not by the people they abused. The correct answer is that it can never be a matter of time alone. If the people they wronged have not forgiven them, then what can the rest of us mean by our forgiveness? That we feel empowered to forgive suggests that, on some level, we rightly understand celebrity as a power that derives from our collective elevation of the individual. That, too, must entail certain responsibilities.

  4. Both in psychological and self-help circles, "forgive yourself" seems to have become popular advice in recent years. Nor is self-forgiveness necessarily illegitimate, but it's important to be clear on what's being forgiven. The only wrongs you can properly forgive yourself are the wrongs you've perpetrated against yourself — like the erosion of character that comes of having wronged others.