The United States Needs a Truth Commission. It Should Be Televised.
A public reckoning with the country’s long history of racial injustice will only have mass impact through live testimony.
As the United States contends with the historic Black Lives Matter movement, several U.S. politicians have renewed their calls for truth commissions—public inquiries into past grievances and human rights violations. Members of Congress, including Rep. Barbara Lee, Rep. John Larson, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Cory Booker, and Sen. Kamala Harris, have emphasized the importance of such hearings in achieving a society-level understanding of the root causes of violence, inequality, and racism, and also in beginning the processes of accountability, healing, and reconciliation.
But to have a mass impact, especially because racism in the United States is so deep-rooted, these truth commissions must also be broadcast live.
With government support, such commissions could be established at the national level. If headed by elected commissioners with a reputable record of truth-seeking efforts, a nationwide truth commission would galvanize a national dialogue to complement the work of city and state-level commissions.
Through these hearings, which should be televised and streamed online, victims would share testimony of injustices suffered, and perpetrators would share stories about the injustices they committed. How far back into the past these commissions should go is an issue that depends on how far back living survivors are able to provide firsthand testimony. These stories would be both personal and historical, providing context that other justice mechanisms, such as prosecutions, do not capture.
A live recounting of painful stories would grant agency to survivors in a way that top-down policies, such as reparations, would not. It would also force citizens across U.S. society to make a conscious decision: Either they watch or switch off. If several channels air the testimonies, they would be difficult to ignore. Whether in support or in resistance, all Americans would participate in a sobering exercise of public reckoning.
It is easy for those who have not suffered racism and violence to dismiss protests as crowds of angry individuals who will eventually tire of taking to the streets. But the power of video footage is undeniable. The Black Lives Matter movement, particularly following George Floyd’s death and its public broadcasting, represents a notable shift in the U.S. national consciousness. According to a Monmouth University poll, 76 percent of Americans—including 71 percent of white Americans—now say that racial and ethnic discrimination is a “big problem” in the United States, up from 51 percent in 2015.
It would be difficult, then, to turn away from a public reckoning with a long history of police brutality and institutional racism broadcast live. As with Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” these painful testimonies cannot be unseen or unheard when televised and streamed online, especially as they would reach a wider audience, including Americans of varied backgrounds. Such a collective experience would be hard to erase.
Historically, truth commissions have taken place in the aftermath of mass violence, such as after the overthrow of the dictatorial regime in Tunisia in 2011 or the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.
Between 2014 and 2019, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission investigated and documented crimes committed over a six-decade period spanning the last year of French colonial rule and two post-independence authoritarian regimes. In 2019, it released a damning 2,000-page report outlining torture, sexual crimes, corruption, and other violations.
But the most striking moments of the Tunisian commission were the hours of public hearings aired on prime-time television and streamed online in 2016 and 2017. Victims and their relatives recounted the gruesome details of torture, sexual crimes, and other injustices perpetrated by the Tunisian state security apparatus.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission offers similar lessons. Established in 1995, the commission aimed to expose and record individual and systemic suffering under four decades of apartheid rule, as well as to facilitate reparations and national reconciliation. As in Tunisia, the commission made its mark when it broadcast live and recorded television and radio testimonies between 1996 and 1997.
For many South Africans, “[T]hese public hearings were the commission,” argues Catherine Cole, a professor at the University of Washington. Only 10 percent of victims, around 2,000 South Africans, provided public testimonies, but the footage amounted to more than 14,000 hours of video and over 10,000 hours of audio.
While the United States is not grappling with the immediate aftermath of mass violence, the tools of transitional justice can nevertheless be put to good use. There has been no adequate reckoning with the mass violence generated by slavery that manifests today in the form of discrimination and police brutality. Past truth commissions in the United States have taken place mostly at the city level, such as the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to establish the truth about the 1979 Greensboro massacre, or the 2011 Detroit truth commission on the role of race-based housing policies in perpetuating inequality.
These local-level commissions are important, but they failed to galvanize American society at large, as their mandates to address structural racism were limited to a specific event or policy. On their own, these commissions are not enough to trigger national-level change with regards to the entrenched injustice of racism. The persistence of structural racism, police brutality, and police impunity in the United States requires a national public reckoning.
A series of live video hearings would expose, address, and acknowledge America’s long history of inequality and racism. Most importantly, the toll of this history would be etched into the public memory. Victims would have the opportunity to tell the full story of their grievances. Contextualized stories recounted by the victims themselves would contribute to a larger narrative, illustrating the full picture of structural and systemic racism.
Truth commissions are unlike a typical trial in a court of law, where victims must have an open legal case in order to share their story. Victims don’t need to endure an adversarial cross-examination. Instead, truth commissions typically afford victims and their families the opportunity to paint a fuller picture. In the United States, a truth commission would capture the complexities of structural and historical racism. These stories often remain behind closed doors, or in thousands of pages of truth commission reports. They can also become tainted by a polarized media in a fractious political climate. But hearing the stories firsthand from perpetrators, victims, and their families would compel viewers to make their own decisions on the significance of the injustices described.
Televised hearings have a profound impact on public memory because they are more accessible than a multivolume report for viewers from diverse backgrounds. They galvanize the public discourse, challenging narratives about the past and its impact on the present. The participation of perpetrators can expose how such injustices are enforced persistently and with impunity.
Tunisia and South Africa again offer important precedents. In Tunisia, five perpetrators came forward to testify at the Truth and Dignity Commission. While some used the platform as a way to defend their actions and deflect responsibility, they nevertheless enhanced the exercise by providing details that might not have otherwise come to light. One of the perpetrators in particular broke with the official narratives of the past. Mohamed Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of the former first lady and a wealthy businessman, delivered prerecorded testimony from his prison cell; he is serving sentences amounting to 108 years for corruption. Aired in May 2017, his testimony—though it appeared to lack remorse—described a web of corruption.
“Neither the analysis of experts nor that of politicians is as powerful as the words of victims who recount the gut-wrenching details of what happened to them,” said Sihem Bensedrine, the president of the Truth and Dignity Commission. “Nothing matches the emotional intensity that emerges from the screen and touches the core of the viewer.”
In a survey conducted by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, around 84 percent of those polled said that their perception of the former dictatorships had changed for the worse following the public hearings. Approximately 4 million Tunisians—about one-third of the population—tuned in to the hearings live, either on television or on the internet. Gilbert Naccache, a Tunisian writer and leftist intellectual who was jailed and tortured for his political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, ended his testimony by highlighting the importance of the public hearings: “The truth, no matter what we do, is revolutionary.”
Transitional justice advocates often cite South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model for the United States because of its significant reach across South African society. But less examined is the impact that the live hearings had on a much broader swath of South Africans than the commission’s final report did. Experts point to how the audio and video recordings powerfully humanized individual stories of suffering, preventing desensitization. Moreover, the visual impact of video hearings supersedes that of a multivolume written report—the same can be said about existing and future such reports in the United States.
The recent surge in calls for transitional justice in the United States is overwhelmingly focused on reparations and the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. But without live video hearings, wider U.S. society will miss the opportunity to participate in a meaningful public reckoning that unsettles the past and attempts to dismantle systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality—today and in the future.
Such public hearings are not without risks. Victims, their families, and their communities could be retraumatized as they relive the horrors of the past through live testimonies. Some perpetrators would exploit such public hearings to put forth a narrative that denies the existence of police brutality or systemic racism—something that can also retraumatize victims and polarize societies. Many of these risks could be mitigated through government-funded psychosocial support and carefully crafted protocols to protect victims and witnesses.
If a national broadcaster aired truth commission testimonies in the United States, it would shake the American psyche into consciousness. This is a necessary first step for the process of public healing and reconciliation. It is a painful but essential exercise if meaningful change is to become a reality.
Noha Aboueldahab is an award-winning transitional justice specialist, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of Transitional Justice and the Prosecution of Political Leaders in the Arab Region (2017). She co-chairs the Transitional Justice and Rule of Law Interest Group at the American Society of International Law. Twitter: @nohaaboueldahab