Healing Past Violence: Traumatic Assumptions and Therapeutic Interventions in War and Reconciliation

Since South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a therapeutic moral order has become one of the dominant frameworks within which states attempt to deal with a legacy of violent conflict. As a consequence, the grammar of trauma, suffering, repression, denial, closure, truth-revelation, and catharsis has become almost axiomatic to postconflict state-building. The rise of the postconflict therapeutic framework is tied, ineluctably, to the global proliferation of amnesty agreements. This article examines the emergence and application of two therapeutic truisms that have gained political credence in postconflict contexts since the work of the TRC. The first of these is that war-torn societies are traumatized and require therapeutic management if conflict is to be ameliorated. The second, and related truism, is that one of the tasks of the postconflict state is to attend to the psychiatric health of its citizens and the nation as a whole. The article shows how, and to what effect, these truisms coalesce powerfully at the site of postconflict national reconciliation processes. It argues that the discourse of therapy provides a radically new mode of state legitimation. It is the language through which new state institutions, primarily truth commissions, attempt to acknowledge suffering, ameliorate trauma and simultaneously found political legitimacy. The article concludes by suggesting that, on a therapeutic understanding, postconflict processes of dealing with past violence justify nascent political orders on new grounds: not just because they can forcibly suppress conflict, or deliver justice and protect rights, but because they can cure people of the pathologies that are a potential cause of resurgent violence.

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