Once a Killer Always a Killer?

Coexist is a documentary and educational outreach project in use by more than 3,000 schools and community organizations in 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Our project includes a 40-minute film and a four-lesson Teacher's Guide, which can be used in the classroom and in support of positive school climate campaigns, to counter bullying, and to encourage positive choices to prevent violence.

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“I needed that.” a young woman says under her breath as she walks away from an intense discussion about remorse, revenge, reconciliation, and forgiveness. 40 women and of all ages in 2 separate groups spent 4 hours reflecting on Coexist in a cold, florescent lighted gym in Athens, Tennessee. They wrestled with the moral questions raised in the film. You could see the deep thought on their faces as they contemplated whether men who killed were truly remorseful and actually reconciling with survivors left behind after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.


Raven, a mother, connected with the story of Agnes, a mother who lost her husband and three children during the genocide. Agnes chose to forgive those who harmed her. Raven said, “If Agnes can forgive, it makes me think about when I can forgive for the small things that we get worked up about.” Another woman added “and we all have things we can forgive people for.”


It's a lively discussion where the women sit facing each other in a circle, seemingly feeling free to disagree with each other, as they do strongly when one says, “once a killer always a killer.” She's echoing the statement of Elisabeth in Coexist, whose brother was murdered more than decade after the genocide. Immediately many women try to jump in to dispute that, then going around one by one, many express their views that a person can change and not be defined by the terrible act they committed.


As the discussion ends and the women share how they're feeling many express their gratitude for having the opportunity to consider their values and engage in a dialogue about issues that they don't often have opportunities to discuss in a safe space. The women leave with smiles and handshakes, offering their thanks.


Then the men move in for a screening and discussion. This time we don't sit in a circle. But we do get into an intense conversation about whether people are born killers, and Elisabeth's comment “once a killer always a killer.” This is something the men seem keenly interested in debating. Some men point to people like Charles Manson and others known for killing numerous people. Others raise the idea that anyone would kill given the opportunity, with some disagreeing saying they would only kill if their life was at stake, not simply if the opportunity presents itself. There's also some spirited disagreement about whether a local genocide organizer, Gregoire, was truly remorseful and whether Jean, who admits to leading a group who killed, was really reconciling and remorseful.


The men were keenly interested in the motivations and values of people who killed whereas the women were clearly more engaged in the conversation about why some choose to forgive, while others do not. The women also chose to spend more time considering the remorsefulness of men who harm others.


As the men leave offering their thanks and many kind words, I flash back on what our host said when we walked through the halls entering the gym this afternoon, “If anything bad happens you just go over by the door there and let me deal everything and someone else will get you out of here, we'll leave it cracked open.”


But the warning now seems unnecessary, the people we met were cordial, kind, and appreciative at the Athens, Tennessee jail, even though they may be spending many months or years living there.

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Photos of the Coexist discussion at the McMinn County Justice Center:


View Coexist in Schools around the world in a full screen map

How Coexist is working in Schools

Here's a link to one example of what happens in classrooms where we teach Coexist. That school now plans to broaden and deepen the conversation about violence prevention.

Read what people are saying about Coexist here.

Contact us at coexistdocumentary@gmail.com

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