FORGIVENESS OF STRONG: the story of how a murderer and his victim make our world a better place
Sculpture «LOVE». Author: Alexander Milov
The composition consists of the figures of two people, created in the form of large metal cages, in the middle of which the inner self is imprinted, made in the form of children stretching their hands through the bars. During the hours of darkness, the children begin to glow. This glow is a symbol of purity and innocence that brings people together and gives them a chance for reconciliation
This is a story of remorse and forgiveness that began almost thirty years ago. It could have been just one of thousands of tragedies that, unfortunately, occur in troubled urban neighborhoods around the world. One teenager killed another.
But then the unbelievable happened: the family of the perpetrator and the family of the victim came together to break the cycle of violence and revenge. In essence, the remorseful killer replaced the murdered son for his father.
As you read this article, think: what does forgiveness mean to you? Are you capable of doing what the characters in our story did, or does the Old Testament principle of «an eye for an eye» still seem like the only solution to you?
KILLING FOR A SLICE OF PIZZA
At the age of 39, Tony Hicks was released from prison. He went behind bars as a 14-year-old teenager back in 1995 and spent almost 25 years in prison. When he was born, his mother was only 15 years old, and his father flatly refused to burden himself with parental care.
Then, over 9-year-old Tony, his grandfather, Ples Felix, a Vietnam War veteran, arranged for guardianship and moved him to San Diego. But no matter how hard Felix tried, keeping his grandson safe from the influence of North Park’s teenage gangs was impossible. And there was a lot to worry about: three of Tony’s cousins had already died by then in street shootings.
Sadly, his grandfather’s upbringing could not compete with the criminal influence of the street. Hicks grew up an embittered child, often ran away from home, tried drugs and alcohol, and gradually turned into a full-fledged member of one of the street gangs called «Bone».
One night Hicks, aka «Bone», and three of his friends decided to order a pizza from a non-existent address in one of the North Park neighborhoods. The plan was simple — to snatch the pizza from the bewildered deliveryman at gunpoint without paying a dime for it.
However, Tariq Khamisa, a 20-year-old student at the University of San Diego, who delivered orders that ill-fated night, refused to obey and locked himself in the car. And then, on the orders of the gang leader, Tony, not really thinking about the consequences of the act, shot Tariq with a nine-millimeter caliber pistol. Afraid of appearing not cool enough to his friends, he took a man’s life for the sake of a slice of pizza, which he never had time to try…
THE LOSS OF A LIFE PILLAR
He was soon arrested. Twenty-one days earlier, state laws had been amended so that juveniles as young as 14 could be convicted of murder. And Hicks became the first teenager to fall under that law. In prison, he began to change dramatically, although it was not easy to come to terms with the new reality.
When Tony turned 21, he stabbed a guard and then had another year added to his sentence. It seemed to Hicks that he would never be released from prison. Suddenly, he found solace in books, even though he could barely read before his incarceration.
He started with comic books, then moved on to thrillers, and became fascinated by the famous epic of George R. R. Martin’s «A Song of Ice and Fire». Then came the turn of the classics: Steinbeck, Tolkien, and others. At some point, Tony himself decided to take up writing. He wrote a one-act play, which was staged with the participation of inmates who attended acting classes.
In prison, Hicks developed a love of learning, earned a high school diploma, and began taking college preparatory courses. However, a considerable role in Tony’s desire to become a different person played not only in books but also in two people: his grandfather, who, despite everything, continued to take care of him, and… Azim Khamisa — the father of the young man he killed.
Thanks to these people and books, the former street thug found a foothold in life that he had tried unsuccessfully to find among the street gangs. Tony’s lack of security transformed into aggression, into fear of not living up to the expectations of his criminal family.
CRIME ALWAYS HAS TWO VICTIMS
Azim, the father of the murdered teenager, managed to see not one but two victims in the tragedy that took place — on both sides of the gun. He found the strength to forgive the killer of his only son and offered to cooperate with the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), which, together with Ples Felix, he founded in memory of his murdered son.
So, out of a terrible tragedy, a noble endeavor was born — a non-profit organization that works to reduce youth violence.
It is a beautiful example of restorative justice, the concept that reconciliation with victims helps rehabilitate the perpetrator.
Tasreen Khamisa, Tariq’s sister who heads the TKF, admits she has grown to love Tony like a brother. Azim has found the strength to forgive him and treat him like a son — Tony no longer reminds him of the man who fired a gun in North Park years ago.
Thanks to a petition from the Khamis family, Tony Hicks was released from prison on parole.
Now, the former inmate is doing his best to help TKF stop the killing of one child by another — speaking about his experiences, blogging, and talking to youth audiences around the world. He urges us not to give in to pressure from others, anger, and revenge.
He tells how his years in prison gave him time to reflect on his life and repent sincerely. Each time he tells his story, he apologizes to Tariq’s family and hopes he can one day redeem himself.
In November 2017, the grandfather and grandson told their story at TED. The transcript of their presentation was translated into 17 languages.
REVENGE HAS THE POWER TO BLIND THE ENTIRE WORLD
According to TKF’s website, since the Foundation’s inception, they’ve been able to speak to more than 500,000 students in San Diego County alone and nearly 1,000,000 students around the world.
Wherever the presentations take place — Fallbrook or Finland, the White House, or the summer residence of Pope John Paul II — most of the attendees are young people, the same age as the Hicks who once pulled the trigger.
The Foundation’s main goal is to teach as many people as possible about forgiveness, compassion, responsibility, and peacemaking. «The principle of an eye for an eye can make the whole world blind», says Khamisa, echoing Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words.
What is striking about this story is that in both the murdered and the murderer, Azim Khamisa was able to see the victim. The hatred for the criminal has given way to the realization that the real enemy is not a lost and angry 14-year-old who has fallen into bad company but society, which pushes people like Tony to the criminal margins, denying them compassion and support.
In fact, the North Park murder took not one but two lives. Upon realizing this, the victim’s father and the perpetrator’s grandfather became like-minded, not enemies. Revenge gave way to forgiveness and destruction to creation.
This brought positive change not only to Tony’s family but also to Khamisa’s family — having forgiven him, he felt immense relief, and the pain of the loss no longer prevented him from returning to normal life. Without forgiveness, this could never have happened.
Usually, emotional connection should give a person a sense of security and create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. However, there are pathological manifestations of emotional connection to people or events that are a constant source of mental anxiety and pain. In such a state, people do not cope well with conflicts, frustration, jealousy, and annoyance.
The manifestation of such emotional dependence can be, for example, the inability to forgive the offender or a compulsive desire for revenge.
It appears when the traumatizing story is not completed, it continues to live and develop inside a person. Therefore, in his thoughts and experiences, he uncontrollably returns to this event, scrolls, and lives it over and over again.
The example of Tariq’s fiancée shows what can happen to a person who has gone headlong into resentment against life and denial of what happened.
She was never able to come to terms with the loss of her loved one, to get rid of her hatred for Hicks, and flatly refused to participate in the activities of the Foundation. Addicted to drugs, she died 7 years after Tariq’s death. The girl was caught in a vicious circle, in a destructive infinity of experiencing the loss of her loved one.
How to get out of such an emotional trap?
In a state of shock, the situation is perceived as supercritical, unchanging, lasting forever — a person is unable to see anything or think about anything else…
Psychologists who work with such people try to help them realize that life goes on and is arranged in such a way that in it, «everything is not forever». Correcting traumatic reactions can be done, for example, by answering questions such as: «How meaningful will this be in fifty years?», «What is the worst that could happen?» «What is really important to you in life?».
Tariq’s father, thanks to forgiveness, managed to restore normal emotional ties, but his fiancée, unfortunately, was not able to get out of the emotional trap and forgive the offender.
PEACEMAKING WITHOUT BORDERS
Tony, his grandfather, and the relatives of the deceased Tariq succeeded. It is no coincidence that the story of TKF inspires thousands of young people today. It points the way not only to the perpetrators and their victims, helping them to regain their full humanity. This story has another important aspect.
In today’s society, which is highly atomized and divided, there are many different barriers between people.
There are class, religious, property, racial, and other boundaries that seem to us almost impossible. Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix have managed to overcome these boundaries as well.
Azim Khamisa is a former investment banker, a Muslim, a native of Kenya, and a descendant of Indian immigrants. Plez Felix is a former municipal clerk, Vietnam War veteran, African-American who was born into a Baptist family from East Los Angeles.
It would be hard to imagine more dissimilar and challenging to reconcile identities. What both share in common, however, is that they hate violence.
«I’ve been to war, and I know: when people kill each other, there’s nothing worse than that!» — Felix admits. For his part, Khamisa shares his feelings about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Azim was shocked that the same spiritual force that helped him forgive his son’s murderer pushed his co-religionists to commit a terrible atrocity.
The man is sure that the reasons for September 11 have nothing to do with the true meaning of Islam. They lie in the realm of geopolitics, in people’s obsession with money, power, and control over resources.
LEADERS WHO CAN FORGIVE
The founders of TKF are convinced that forgiveness and peacemaking must go global — there is no other way to break the endlessly repeating cycle of violence and revenge.
At the «Peacemakers Assembly», which the Foundation regularly hosts, they ask attendees to internalize six simple, but unfortunately not obvious to everyone, lessons that can change society and everyone’s life for the better:
- Violence is real. All is not right with our world.
- Bad decisions cannot lead to good outcomes.
- The bad act of another should only be answered with goodness, excluding violence.
- Offer forgiveness, not revenge.
- Everyone deserves respect and empathy.
- Out of any conflict, a «loving unity» can be created.
Azim Khamisa urges people to look differently at the function of leadership in today’s world. He bitterly notes that the people who hold power on the planet do not know how to forgive because they consider it an unacceptable display of weakness.
However, such an attitude is an attribute of misinterpreted, fake leadership. Khamisa describes true leadership in the words of Gandhi, whom he respects immensely: «The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong».
With this publication, we open a series of articles on forgiveness and revenge. You will be surprised to learn how much of the fate of an individual and large groups, states, and private companies depends on our emotional reactions. Stay tuned for further articles in this column.