Today’s speaker was William Heffernan, Professor of Criminal Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His topic was, “Historic Wrongs”, by which he meant historic wrongs committed by governments and the great difficulties we encounter in trying to redress these wrongs.
There have been many governments that have committed great wrongs through history but today Prof. Heffernan limited his discussion to the American experience of slavery and to our treatment of Native Americans. He was inspired to write this talk after reading a newspaper column which presented a romanticized, incomplete picture of American history, one that that did not even attempt to come to terms with these stains on our past.
Both these historic events were calamitous and continue to cast a long shadow on history and on the lives of succeeding generations, so much so that many have advocated for some type of reparations to be made. It was this specific issue, and the question of whether reparations are in fact realistic, that was the focus of Prof. Heffernan’s talk today.
Unlike, say, in a traffic accident, where it is possible to make the aggrieved party whole again, and to do so almost immediately, these historical events happened generations ago and their proximate victims are long dead. It isn’t even clear how to come up with a moral calculus that could fairly and accurately compensate their descendants. Instead, Heffernan advocates for broad scale social programs that help all people and would, therefore, effectively be of greater help to persons in need as a result of such historic wrongs.