Never Too Late to Say Sorry
01 August 1997
Public apology for historic national wrongs seems to be in vogue: President Clinton for slavery and the more recent medical experiments on African Americans without their consent; Tony Blair for English ignorance of the Irish potato famine; the Queen for British treatment of the Maoris; Christians for the Crusades.
Should governments or heads of state apologize at all for their nations' past? Or are these empty gestures which only serve to reopen Pandora's box? What right, anyway, does today's generation have to apologize on behalf of their forebears?
Apology can be cheap when there is no sacrifice involved, or when it is only a self-centred means of alleviating guilt. As Dr John Casey of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, wrote in London's Daily Mail recently, 'What is the use of apology without restitution for the wrong done?'
Honest apology, when sincerely felt, demonstrates an empathy for the sufferer as well as an admission of guilt. Then, apology is a genuine response to the perceived suffering of the victim. This can help to bring healing to both victim and perpetrator, even if time and events are beyond restitution. No one, for instance, can bring back those shot for cowardice during World War I, though we now understand the medical condition-post traumatic stress disorder-from which many of them suffered. But the families of the dead still deserve an apology for the stigma their parents or grandparents were branded with.
For the British, the issue comes closer to the present over events in Northern Ireland, such as Bloody Sunday. On 30 January 1972, British paratroopers in Londonderry shot dead 13 civil rights demonstrators. It is now known that they were unarmed, but Britain has never admitted any guilt. The relatives of those killed have long demanded justice. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, is looking at new evidence from eyewitnesses.
Some fear that this will open up a keg of worms, or that any admission of guilt will amount to appeasement of violent Republicanism. But sitting on the keg won't make the worms go away. They'll eat their way out of a rotten barrel one way or another anyway. Britain is right to take a fresh look at events such as Bloody Sunday. If this eventually leads to reparations, and if necessary prosecutions, so be it.
Apology and restitution are, after all, painful. But in the long run they are the shortest cut to creating the trust on which a better future can be built.