Do encounters with perpetrators help or hinder recovery after traumatic loss?

Melbourne man Jan Laczynski (right), who lost five friends in the Bali bombings meets Nasir Abbas, who trained the bombers. SBS

Would you meet with the people found responsible for the deaths of your family members or friends? In the first episode of the two-part SBS program Meet the terrorists: The Bali bereaved search for answers, which first aired on Tuesday, three bereaved people do just that.

The 2002 Bali bombings claimed 202 lives. Among them were Ni Luh Erniati’s husband, Gede, a barman at the Sari Club; five friends of Jan Laczynski, who were working as security guards at the club; and Nyoman Rencini‘s husband, Ketut, a taxi driver who was waiting on Legian street when the building was bombed.

Ni Luh, Jan, and Nyoman choose to meet and talk with Nasir Abbas, the convicted trainer of the Bali bombers. These relatives and friends are deeply committed to hearing from Abbas why he did what he did.

Abbas declares himself reformed and remorseful. While not seeking forgiveness from these three, he shares his burden and struggle with what he has done.

But do these encounters with perpetrators help or hinder recovery after traumatic loss? And what is the purpose of going through such difficult conversations?

Finding meaning

Finding a satisfactory answer to why such violence has occurred is an important part of living with traumatic loss. We know that traumatic life events destabilise a person’s sense of safety and meaning. They often provoke a search for a new narrative about the world in which we live and how others behave.

Research shows those who are able to find some sense of meaning after traumatic loss have better mental health outcomes. A sense of meaning seems to reconcile what has occurred into experiences of coherence and order.

But whether the meaning-making and healing process should involve contact with the perpetrators is a contentious issue.

Organised encounters with perpetrators – the pros and cons

Encounters between survivors and perpetrators have been seen as key opportunities to build reconciliation; “opportunities for redress and healing”. They are often described as truth-telling opportunities to bring about justice – whether at individual or social levels.

This may involve acknowledging the impacts on a survivor. Through this unique dialogue, new understandings and a shared sense of humanity can be built. If terrorism occurs because of a failure of human empathy, it can be an opportunity to build empathy. For perpetrators, worldviews and behaviours may change. These are the therapeutic hopes for these encounters. But these outcomes are highly dependent upon the motivations of all parties.

Given their inherently emotional and unpredictable nature, and the potential for invalidation by the perpetrator, they are also high-risk encounters. They may not evoke the expected reaction from the perpetrator. Encounters may not provide the answers someone is looking for. They can reinforce the perpetrator’s original intent to cause harm and demonstrate yet again the different worldview they hold.

Rather than provide answers, both re-traumatisation and secondary traumatisation are possible. As Nyoman, one of the widows in the program states, “meeting him has brought up all my sadness”. She said there was no sense of peace for her, “no matter how well he explained it”.

Meanwhile, Jan is left with the haunting question: “what if he’s not telling the truth?”. A sense of trust in humanity can break down even further if this encounter is not authentic.

What does the evidence say?

Questions about these encounters have arisen in the aftermath of many acts of terrorism, including the Holocaust, the troubles in Ireland, and the South African conflicts. They have also arisen in the personal contexts of family violence and road accidents.

The research evidence is mixed about the benefits of these reconciliation processes. It’s also limited because most research focuses on large-scale reconciliation encounters in which survivors and perpetrators give public testimony. It’s also limited because of the ethical sensitivities and practical barriers to engaging in research studies in this area of people’s lives.

Some studies show that having the opportunity to reconcile with perpetrators is therapeutic in the short and longer term. This relates to both individual mental health outcomes, and wider social cohesion and tolerance. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is just one example of bringing perpetrators and survivors together to courageously build a sense of shared truth, remorse, forgiveness and empathy.

But other studies have shown that the unpredictability and the unmet expectations of these encounters are deeply unsettling. They result in poor mental health outcomes. One study of 1,200 Rwandans involved in village level truth telling encounters, for example, found higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in those who participated in these meetings compared with those in the same communities who did not.

Other studies have shown there is no significant association between these encounters and mental health outcomes. However, a capacity for forgiveness does seem to consistently be connected with better mental health outcomes.

In the first episode of Meet the Terrorists, Abbas grapples with his sense of burden with his actions and has the opportunity to share his experience. His remorse may increase the likelihood of this process working. It may be possible to establish a new empathy and understanding.

The three survivors try to reconcile the tensions and risks of meeting with him. Ni Luh, who had met Abbas previously, believes Abbas is sincere in his message of non-violence and deradicalisation work. “He doesn’t want any more bombings in Bali or anywhere in Indonesia,” she says.

But the other two are less clear about how helpful the encounter is at this point. For Nyomen, no reconciliation or new meaning seems evident. And for Jan, the “complete picture” is still missing. The realities of the mixed impacts of these types of encounters are starkly portrayed in these three different experiences.

Next week’s episode focuses on meeting one of the people directly responsible for the bombing. Will these tensions and risks escalate? Will forgiveness be part of the discussion? And what will be the consequences?

The second and final episode of Dateline’s Meet the Terrorist airs Tuesday 9.30pm on SBS.

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