In 2014 Paul Kohler was savagely attacked in his own home. At the time he was working as an academic lawyer, living in South London with his wife, Sam, and their four daughters. With his wife and eldest daughter, he later went to meet one of the attackers through a restorative justice process set up by the charity Why Me?.
It was an evening like any other. We’d had dinner, my eldest daughter was at the top of the house with her boyfriend, my three other daughters had gone out, and my wife and I were playing a card game downstairs. Then there was this knock on the door and when I opened it four men piled into the hallway, violently attacking me and shouting over and over, “Where’s the money?”
My wife had gone upstairs to our bedroom seconds before so I instinctively protected the stairs but they beat me to the ground and sat on me while two of them went up to confront Sam, making her lie down with her face covered. The other two tried to tape my mouth and threatened to beat me with a heavy cabinet door that had broken off in the melee. Thankfully my daughter at the top of the house hearing the commotion rang 999. Because of this the police came within eight minutes and I’m pretty sure saved my life.
I was in hospital for a few days and although I was in pain I didn’t feel a huge amount of mental trauma. I think it helped that when I came home I lay down in each of the positions where I’d been attacked because I wanted to recapture these spaces without the attackers looming in my vista. Also because I was the one who was physically injured I saw myself getting better as the wounds healed. It was far harder for my wife and daughter. My wife was threatened but not physically attacked. And my daughter, having barricaded herself in her room, had imagined her parents being murdered. She moved out for a year soon afterwards in part, I think, because she now felt uneasy at home.
The attackers were Polish nationals and the Polish community, here and abroad, were incredibly kind. I received literally thousands of emails. They wanted to apologise to me. I remember a Polish woman coming up to me in the street and asking for my forgiveness. So I held her hands and said it wasn’t for her to apologise for her compatriots.
Two of the attackers were caught on the night; the other two were only apprehended after the media used a graphic photo of me covered in bruises to bring attention to the story. But unfortunately some elements of the press misused the story; for instance it was used to pump up anti-immigrant, anti EU feeling. I was turned into an English hero defending his castle against foreign invaders. I wasn’t happy with that.
When the charity Why Me? contacted us to ask if we’d like them to try to facilitate a restorative justice meeting with one or more of the attackers we agreed as it seemed a way to get some answers. The process lasted more than a year until eventually a meeting in prison was arranged between myself, my wife, my eldest daughter and one of the attackers. The other attackers were not considered appropriate for restorative justice.
I went into this meeting wanting to know why they’d attacked me. My wife wanted to tell him how awful it had been for her, and my daughter wanted to find out if he was going to mend his ways. In the end during the course of a two-hour meeting it emerged that only my daughter’s question was of importance. I was never going to find out why they’d chosen me. I suspect they had got the wrong house in a gangland attack. My wife discovered that actually he knew already exactly how she felt because of the way she’d looked at him during the attack. My daughter’s question mattered because he apologised to us and we needed to find out whether the apology was genuine or superficial, and that resulted in us quizzing him about what he was planning to do with the rest of his life to test whether his remorse was heartfelt. He said he was to improve his education in prison, attending English classes and trying to mend his ways and persuaded us he was genuine.
My daughter was hugely helped by the meeting because it demythologised the attacker. He stopped being a monster in her mind and that was very important in her recovery resulting in her returning home. I’m not sure what effect the process had on me but my wife was more equivocal because she felt annoyed with herself afterwards. Even though Why Me? had stressed that you don’t have to forgive, Sam felt she’d been too forgiving of him.
For me forgiveness felt quite natural, as it helped me move on.
People occasionally say how religious I must be to forgive, but as a confirmed agnostic I disagree. As an article discussing my case in the Christian Today at the time argued, forgiveness is part of the human condition; an aspect of our humanity rather than our religion. Forgiving the perpetrator is a means of dealing with your internal issues and ensuring you’re not embittered by the experience. So forgiveness, paradoxically, is in some senses a selfish act, or at least a self-centred one, which helps you move on from the trauma. The consequence of that is of course that you do end up forgiving the perpetrator; but that’s not your motivation but a by-product of the process.
Paul is still an academic lawyer and now also works as a Councillor in South West London.
Why me? delivers and promotes access to Restorative Justice for everyone affected by crime.
The Christian Today article “The dark side of forgiveness: How churches sometimes ask too much” is available here.