SAY YOU’RE SORRY
Remember when you were a child and you did something wrong? You may have broken a neighbor’s window or taunted your sister; or acted disrespectfully toward your mother – behavior totally unacceptable. At the very least, what you were ordered to do was to say you’re sorry. And to offer an apology, face to face with the person you’d “wronged”. Ever defiant, you refused. It was not your fault. You’ve been accused unfairly, your actions misunderstood. But unless you apologized you were going to be punished, a treat withheld, a trip canceled, or worse, immediate banishment to your room, and no TV! Reluctant and resentful you gave in and without the slightest hint of conviction, out came the obligatory “I’m sorry.” It was over quickly and was relatively painless. The matter, it seemed, had been settled.
Apologies are not something sovereign nations and their governments readily offer. Much is at stake here – national pride, unity, legal liability and the conviction of always being in the right. To accept responsibility, to concede fault can be interpreted as weakness, unbecoming a sovereign nation. , Turkey has certainly not been forthcoming regarding the deaths of Armenians in the years after 1915, nor have the Japanese apologized for forcing “comfort women” into prostitution during World War II. Germany represents a major exception, having officially acknowledged the horrific deeds of the Nazis by offering reparations and repeated apologies to the survivors of Hitler’s madness.
What about the United States? Despite its traditions as a free and open society and its celebration of diversity there’s been no shortage of shameful episodes in our past. And no rush to acknowledge and apologize for such misdeeds unless pressured into doing so. However, slowly unapologetic patriotism and self-righteousness has receded and the realization set in that conceding past wrongdoings will not undermine our Republic. Indeed, the United States, to its credit, may well rank as the leading apologizer in the world. And so in recent memory we’ve witnessed a number of official regrets apologies and admissions of wrongful conduct. Officials have said they’re sorry about the enslavement of African-Americans, the annihilation of native-Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the exclusion of Chinese (1882-1943) from entering the U.S., and the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 19th Century. We’ve also acknowledged and admitted responsibility for subjecting poor African-Americans to syphilis experimentation beginning in the 1930s (The Tuskegee Experiment), intentionally infecting people in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis and for conducting radiation experiments on U.S. citizens.
On the world scene, official apologies are sometimes part of the delicate fabric of relationships that support diplomatic efforts; even if they have to be coaxed out of reluctant national leaders: When American air strikes killed military personnel in Pakistan, an ally, demands for an apology, initially ignored, ultimately produced an acceptance of responsibility. Earlier, President Bush apologized for the atrocious conduct of some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and both Bush and Obama apologized for incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan when members of our military desecrated the Koran.
Nonetheless, apologies issued by our nation’s leaders engender controversy and become politically charged. Republicans, in particular, have repeatedly declared their opposition to our apologizing to other nations whatever the circumstances. Any such concessions are deemed to be distressing signs of weakness, needless concessions in the face of baseless accusations by other nations with dubious claims to the moral high ground. They would grant automatic immunity to the United States and deny that its actions are subject to moral scrutiny.
But even a child discovers the value of saying “I’m sorry”, understands that apologies can repair and recast many a valued and necessary relationship.