Say you’re sorry.” How many times as children did we hear that parental admonition? We all learn sooner or later that, at some point in a quarrel, better to resolve matters with an apology than search for a settlement that will justly apportion blame. This playground etiquette has the virtue of simplicity. But as several recent attempts at apology demonstrate, just saying your sorry does not seem to end the quarrel (see, Gordon Marino, “Apologize for Slavery?” Commonweal, February 13, 1998). In fact, some of these efforts suggest that for many forms of transgression, saying sorry is inadequate, incomplete, or worse, it can become the cause of renewed quarreling. During his African tour, President Bill Clinton expressed regret for the complicity of the United States in the slave trade. But he expressed it in Uganda, which was not part of that trade, instead of West Africa, which was. Then, he was heatedly criticized for “attacking his own country in a foreign land” by Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). When the president expressed regret for U.S. failure to intervene in time to stop the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, he did not go on to admit that it is unlikely that the United States, or any other country, would act differently today. Conflicts over the institutional transgressions of centuries are not likely to fade before apologies that seem merely personal and serendipitous, as Mr. Clinton’s did. On the other hand, long-prepared institutional apologies may not achieve their ends either. The Vatican’s “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” eleven-years in the making, failed finally to come to terms with the responsibility of the Roman Catholic church, “as such,” for the Holocaust. Much of the statement sounded defensive and even complacent, which succeeded in making the apology seem the work of an impersonal committee, merely bureaucratic. And then there is the apology that has become a form of political grandstanding. New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani apologized to the family of a Hasidic man, Yankel Rosenbaum, for his murder during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. The mayor managed to insult almost everyone else-mainly the family of the African-American child, whose death in a car accident set off the riots. Though Giuliani apologized in the name of all New Yorkers, most will take their distance from an apology that seemed to grow from the mayor’s politicized agenda rather than from any citywide effort to reflect on and repent the deaths of two innocent people. Are apologies then a bad idea? Sorry, no. What these examples demonstrate is that apologies are more complicated than most of us imagine. Rather than making clumsy apologies, or foregoing them altogether, maybe we need to take a longer and fuller look at what apologies really require, especially when they involve historical and institutional transgressions or deep-seated public antagonisms. What would such a process involve? What does it mean to apologize for things you didn’t do yourself? What does it mean to apologize for communities, movements, or institutions, especially for long-ago evils? And how is the apology to be understood and formulated? First, what are the facts? Serious historical study or serious fact-finding may be required. Extensive institutional analysis and critical self-examination may be needed. How did the now-contested practice come about, and how did it persist in the presence of ideas or beliefs to the contrary? Then, there has to be a recognition and precise defining of the evil, if this is in doubt; and the accurate placing of responsibility, if that is in question. Institutional analysis may be particularly difficult: bureaucracies are not organized to examine themselves, and when they do, defensiveness of the kind demonstrated in the Vatican’s statement on the Shoah may be the result. In the United States, veterans groups forced the closing of a 1995 Smithsonian Museum exhibition that raised questions about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do we think that the U.S. Congress, if it went to work on the nation’s history of slave trading, would do any better than the Vatican or the Smithsonian have done? Second, why and how do these travesties happen? In placing responsibility, wouldn’t we have to understand why, for example, a people who had declared that all men are created equal, and fought a revolutionary war to uphold that belief, still allowed men and women to be bought and sold as chattel? Why did a people, who believed in equal protection under the law, insist the escaped slaves be returned to their owners? How could a church that taught and teaches that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, for centuries treat the Jews with disdain, order their expulsion from Catholic countries, force their conversion, and then torture and kill them as heretics? In these cases, it is not just that great evils were perpetrated, but they went on and on and on, in the face of beliefs, teachings, and ideals that held strongly to the contrary. What kind of intellectual and cultural dissonance was at work here? What evil was committed? By whom? And why? Those are some of the basic questions that need answering if there is to be true sorrow and true apology. Third, what are the consequences of apologizing? For finally there is another task to be undertaken before an apology can be made. Attention must be paid to the possible consequences of an apology. Is an apology, or demand for an apology, just another step in the construction of victim politics? If so, it may end in sparking resentment and even dismissal of any wrongdoing. Moral claims on the part of current representatives of past victims should not be inflated but must be seen to be accurate and just. Does an apology imply, as Catholic tradition has it, “a firm purpose of amendment”? President Clinton’s apology in Rwanda did not seem to account for the problem of regretting hundreds of thousands of deaths while knowing that American policy still would not risk one American life to prevent such a slaughter. This apology ends in being an empty gesture. It is not so easy to apologize. It is not even easy to figure out how an apology should be constructed. But it is not wrong for all of us to consider how we might truly begin making amends for evils from which we benefit, though we did not commit them.
Published in the 1998-04-24 issue: