Talk is Cheap

New York Moves

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In the early morning of November 4, 2003, an Iraqi man by the name of Manadel al-Jamadi was pulled from his home by American forces and taken to the Abu Ghraib prison, just outside of Baghdad. Naked from the waist down and with a bag thrown over his head, interrogators led him into a room and, as events would unfold, placed him in a position known as the strappado, a form of torture in which a victim is suspended in the air by a rope attached to the wrists, commonly dislocating shoulders, tearing apart ligaments, and suffocating victims due to such intense pressure. Jamadi would eventually be tortured to his death- literally- roughly thirty minutes later, in this very position.

In the subsequent hours after his passing- and in a move that would ultimately help lead to both a full-blown investigation as well as a storm of international media coverage of excessive Iraqi prisoner abuse- certain American personnel would pose for pictures, thumbs up and smiling, next to the frozen and bruised corpse of Jamadi. And later, in the subsequent months after his passing- during which time a devastating amount of similar pictures would surface and numerous allegations of abuse would finally be confirmed- former President George W. Bush would apologize- sort of- for such atrocities. “I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families,” Bush said before reporters on May 6, 2004, a week after CBS’ 60 Minutes II aired photos of abused prisoners. The next day, former Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld would join in Bush’s apology.

“I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees,” Rumsfeld said before Congress. “So to those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology.” But the question is, is this enough? Not coming from the actual guilty in question, what does such an apology mean?

From youth, people are taught to say that they’re sorry for certain things. Eat that cookie you were forbidden to eat before dinner? I’m sorry, mom and dad. Show up late for an interview? Step on somebody’s foot by mistake? Call your friend a lousy, spoiled asshole in the heat of an argument? I’m sorry. Its common nature to express remorse when a person feels at fault for something that has been said or done. Although primarily an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, it’s also an action taken to accept responsibility and ask for a certain closure for that wrongdoing. It’s about respect. No matter how large or small, it’s an essential part of human interaction.

It’s the larger kinds of apologies, however, that pose the real questions. In the past decade or so, many leaders have taken actions to say that they are sorry for major, grand-scale wrongdoings. Wrongdoings, most importantly, that they had no direct part of. Before his death, Pope John Paul II apologized for the killing and destruction of Constantinople by Christian Crusaders in 1204 A.D, for instance. Granted, an apology over 800 years overdue, but millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians rejoiced and accepted the apology, nonetheless. Pope John Paul II was clearly not the guilty in question for this act, but the Catholic Church was owning up to the mistakes of the past, and to many, that’s all that really mattered.

So is it truly, as the saying goes, better late than never, regardless from who it comes from? What is the motivation behind such apologies? Although the skeptic in all of us might argue that it’s all strategic and political, could it simply be that we, as human beings, no matter what association or country we are part of, want to move beyond the activities attached to our history?

The ideal answer, of course, would lead us to believe that yes, some balance must be created between acknowledging the mistakes of “our” past and providing a step forward for nations and peoples to move on into the future. But is it, and can it, possibly be enough?

President Clinton first expressed interested in having the American nation apologize for slavery back in 1997. The idea was met with plenty of ridicule. Some critics believed that the Civil War long closed the issue. Since both enslavers and enslavees were long dead, some thought that the apology would be racially divisive; that it would place blame on current generations just as much as past. Others, however, naturally felt as if there was unfinished business from the eras of slavery. The argument posed the important question of to what extent a current society is responsible for the actions of the past. Should societies today be accountable, since our predecessors not alive to be?

The answer seems pretty clear. This past year on June 18th, 2009, the United States Senate finally voted to formally apologize for slavery and racial segregation in the U.S. Although many states have apologized for themselves for their involvement, it is the first time a branch of the federal government has done so, and it came 146 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. To move on, in certain respects, and to, most importantly move forward, remorse must be recognized. Although the effects are undoubtedly not the same for all, there is a certain closure that results from the acknowledgement itself. There is a powerful step being made to attempt to mend, be it, the sins of our fathers.

And this is not the only of such formal apologies. In 1988, a bill was passed apologizing to Japanese-Americans who were held in detention camps during World War II. In 1993, the Senate passed a bill which the U.S Government apologized to the Kingdom of Hawaii for its overthrow in 1893. 2005: a resolution that apologized to Native Americans for “the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect." And 2006: Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and in February of 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Australia’s aborigines, for all the injustices placed upon them country’s aboriginal history.

And the list goes on.

One of the most recent apologizes happened on July 17, 2009, when the California legislature approved a bill to apologize to the Chinese-American community of the state for laws enacted during the 19th century, which barred Chinese from owning land, marrying whites, and working in the public sector. Although most of the direct victims of these laws have long passed, many agree that it is, indeed, a symbolic move. As one California man stated: “Part of what a humane society does is recognize past injustices and address them.”

A similar instance occurred in 2005. Thirty-one years after charging and imprisoning eleven innocent people- known as the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four- for bombs planted in London pubs by the Irish Republican Army, Tony Blair apologized to those wrongly accused who were still alive. In his apology, he referred to the fact that the men deserved to be “completely and publicly exonerated.” The wife of Giuseppe Conlon, one of the Maguire Seven who died in his fifteen-year jail term for the crime he did not commit, said that the apology would give her “peace of mind.” Gerry Colon, the son of the deceased Giuseppe, said, “Tony Blair has healed rifts, and he is helping heal wounds.” Some might say that that very “peace of mind” is the backbone of an apology, then. That it gives closure, even if the apologizer is not the one who is responsible. That the words and action of remorse itself, no matter from who or where, gives people the capability to forgive and forget. But is that really enough?

Tony Blair’s apology to the innocent men came during a time of negotiations with the Irish Republic Army, and after a lengthy petition was signed, demanding, more or less, the apology. Is it merely publicity, then? An apology is a crucial part of reconciliation, there is no doubt about that, but what if it is somewhat tainted by politics, or self interest? Government officials only apologized to Iraqis citizens after the abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel was made public by the media, and as a result, some sort of reasoning was demanded by the American public. Does that give the needed peace of mind to both parties, or, it simple a strategic move to prevent the repercussions of the actions in question?

There is no easy answer. Some may argue that the strongest people have survived because they had the ability to move on and not fixate on the past. But there undoubtedly some who, simply, cannot forget that easily. Will the families of previous slaves ever truly let go of America’s tumultuous slave past? Will abused and tortured prisoners ever accept the apologies given by their torturer’s nation? Apologies mean different things to different people, it’s as simple as that. Some may embrace an act of remorse irrespective of who said it and when it was said. For others, it may never be enough. Regardless, it is an action taken that deserves some sort of acknowledgement. No matter where you stand on the topic, however, the same saying will always ring true: that the best apology we can possibly make for any past wrongdoing and for any past evil, is to simply see that it never, ever, happens again.

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