Nations try saying, `We're sorry'


Trend: Increasingly, leaders are apologizing for horrendous wrongs committed by earlier generations.

May 07, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- "Never complain and never explain," counseled Benjamin Disraeli, Britain's Tory prime minister in the 1860s and 1870s. Disraeli lived before the rise of legislative hearings, televised news conferences and world leaders who feel other people's pain.

Modern statesmen complain, explain and increasingly do something that would have made Disraeli choke on his claret: apologize for the actions of their countries.

When Switzerland apologized in 1986 for taking hundreds of Gypsy children from their parents over five decades ending in the 1970s, it became one of the first of many nations to formally say, "We're sorry."

Since then, governments all over the world have apologized for wars, persecutions, mistreatment of minorities and other wrongs.

The United States apologized to China last year for mistakenly bombing China's embassy in Yugoslavia. President Clinton in 1995 apologized for U.S. radiation experiments on humans during the Cold War. President Bush in 1990 recognized the wrongs done to Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II.

Norway's King Harald V apologized to the Sami ethnic minority for repression by his country. Portugal has apologized for mistreating Arabs. Britain has apologized for not doing more to alleviate the Irish potato famine. Germany has apologized for several World War II wrongs, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the extermination of millions of Jews. And last week officials in Benin apologized for their country's role in selling millions of fellow Africans to white slave traders.

Churches are doing it, too.

In March, Pope John Paul II publicly repented for the Roman Catholic Church's use of violence and its mistreatment of Jews and other non-Christians. The Lithuanian Catholic Church has apologized for its collaboration with the KGB Soviet intelligence agency and for not doing more to help persecuted Jews in World War II. American Southern Baptists have apologized for supporting slavery.

National apologies occurred in the 1980s and earlier. But scholars say they took off a decade ago, when minority rights gained momentum and when nations scarred by the 20th century's horrendous institutional crimes started to grapple with their heritage.

"The first generation -- the people who participated in the wrongdoing -- really couldn't participate in any kind of reconciliation. Now the grandchildren can do it," says Martha Minow, a Harvard law professor who studies apology and forgiveness as alternatives to criminal punishment. "People didn't talk about official group-to-group and group-to-individual apologies really until the '80s, and not very much until the '90s."

Once, being a government meant never having to say you were sorry. National governments might pay reparations. They might promise to stop offensive behavior. They might retreat or surrender. But apologizing or repenting -- that was between a man and his enemy. Or a man and his God.

But times change. Government isn't the distant, gray force of Disraeli's day. Television delivers the face and personality of a nation -- in the form of its chief executive -- into people's homes. Now that government looks more like a person, it's acting more like one, too, by adopting the language and rituals of apology, say the sociologists.

And, thanks to democratic forces, governments are more responsive and candid toward citizens. It's no accident that one of the first sovereign apologies came in 1848, as Europe was swept by popular revolution. A shaken King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia apologized to "my dear Berliners" for scores of residents killed by his troops -- even though he blamed seditious elements for the trouble.

Perhaps no head of state has expressed national contrition as often as Clinton. The president and other government officials have apologized for personal behavior, but that's nothing new. What's different is politicians expressing regret on behalf of their nations for wrongdoing by their nations --though the misdeeds may have happened decades before the apologizers took office.

"The American people are sorry -- for the loss, for the years of hurt," Clinton told elderly blacks who were intentionally left untreated for syphilis by U.S.-financed doctors in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran from 1932 to 1972. "You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize, and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming."

Clinton has apologized for the deposing of Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani by the Cleveland administration in 1893. He has publicly regretted the U.S. practice of slavery, abuses by the CIA in Guatemala and the failure of Western nations to intervene in massacres in Rwanda.

The president didn't make a conscious decision to give the United States the voice of an eloquent therapy-group member, his staff says. He comes by it naturally, as "part of his empathetic qualities," a senior aide says.

Not everybody thinks national apologies are a good idea.

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