You Call That an Apology?

By Aaron Lazare
Sunday, July 3, 2005

The apology wars have broken out in Washington again. First it was Republicans, hollering for remorse from Sen. Dick Durbin for equating interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay with something out of the regimes of Hitler or Pol Pot. After stonewalling for several days, the Illinois Democrat apologized, sort of. Then presidential adviser Karl Rove made some derogatory remarks about liberals' reactions to 9/11, and it was the Democrats' turn to pounce, calling for his head, or at least some words of regret. No "sorry" from Rove, yet.

This, though, was just the latest round in what's been a bumper year so far for apologies -- or at least calls for apologies. We've had the Newsweek apology and the Larry Summers apology (over and over again). Republicans would like an apology from Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for negative things he said about their party. Opponents of the war in Iraq would like an apology from President Bush for ever starting it and almost everything having to do with it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate offered a somber apology for not havingpassed an anti-lynching law in the last century.

All this apologizing isn't a new phenomenon -- I've been tracking an increase in public apologies for more than a decade -- but the rush of demands for political mea culpas needs to be recognized for what it is: a manipulative tool used for partisan advantage that threatens to turn what should be a powerful act of reconciliation into a meaningless travesty. Instead of healing breaches, these sorry exercises widen the gulfs between people.

The political apologies and demands for apologies have something in common: the attacks on the "offender" are overkill, and are meant to humiliate and weaken. The interplay between the offender and the offended resembles a duel, in which one party wins and the other loses. Neither side is seeking healing or reconciliation. A common tradition in dueling was that an apology by the offender would end the duel without bloodshed. Here, the apology is just another way of drawing blood.

Take the Durbin case. Referring to an FBI agent's report on the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he said: "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what America had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings." Durbin's criticism was legitimate, but his rhetoric got him in trouble. The GOP, as well as Holocaust survivors and others, rose up in arms until the senator offered this tearful apology: "I'm sorry if anything that I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust. . . . I'm also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military."

Did you catch that qualifier -- "if"? That's the signal that this is a pseudo-apology. The alleged offender only conditionally acknowledges that he did anything wrong -- only "if" his words caused offense or pain. Unfortunately, all too many apologies are of this nature. On the lecture circuit, I ask people how often they've offered an apology along the lines of "I'm sorry for whatever I did." It's remarkable how frequently we do that. People are capable of a creative assortment of methods to avoid the straightforward acknowledgement of an offense -- if indeed there has been one -- the forthright "I did it. It was wrong. I understand the damage I did, and I want to repair it."

Instead, they offer vague statements like Durbin's, or use the passive voice: "Mistakes were made." (This has been a favorite technique of American presidents.) They minimize the seriousness of the offense or apologize to the wrong party, like the criminal who apologizes to his family while ignoring the victim of the crime. They apologize for the wrong offense. They use the compassionate "I'm sorry," meaning "I feel bad for what happened to you, but I do not accept responsibility for the offense."

The irony of the administration's demands for apology from Newsweek and Durbin for their references to prisoner treatment is that neither President Bush nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ever made more than a weak apology for the inappropriate behavior of the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib, which seriously damaged the image of the United States throughout the world. Rice said, "We are deeply sorry for what happened to these people, and what the families must be feeling." The acknowledgement of the offense is meager. The words "deeply sorry" would better fit a condolence call.

Bush, in a message communicated to King Abdullah of Jordan, said: "I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was as equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America." The president fails to accept responsibility for the offense that he never names. His "sorry," like Rice's, is the compassionate kind, not the apologetic. He almost seems to be suggesting that the Iraqis should apologize to America for failing to understand us.

I sensed an increase in the frequency of public apologies sometime in 1993 and felt supported by an article that same year in Time magazine titled: "Last month everybody apologized for past horrors." These included Pope John Paul II's apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for its role in supporting the enslavement of Africans, Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's apology for Japan's role in World War II, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's apology for the Soviet army's massacre of 15,000 Polish army officers in the Katyn forest during WWII, and Nelson Mandela's apology for atrocities allegedly committed by his African National Congress.

I subsequently analyzed the annual number of stories involving public apologies in The Washington Post and the New York Times during the 13-year period from 1990 through 2002 and found that it had doubled. The notable rise in apologies during the Clinton years, especially, leads me to think of him as a "professional apologizer." But like other presidents, he apologized for offenses committed by previous administrations -- rather than his own failings. Remember his famous non-apology for the Monica Lewinsky mess?

I also observed that public apologies seemed to occur randomly or in unpredictable waves. There would be several important apologies followed by months of quiet. What we are seeing now, I believe, is more of the same. During Bush's first term, there was relative quiet on the apology front. (This president, as has been frequently noted, rarely, if ever, apologizes.) Now, with the growing polarization between the administration and the opposition over presidential appointments and the conduct of the Iraq war, nastiness is on the rise, with a subsequent demand for apologies as a weapon in the battle for public approval.

But I hope the public won't be deceived into thinking that these politically motivated demands for apology and their responses are in any way representative of the true process of apology. A successful apology -- a real apology -- results in the dissolution of grudges and reconciliation between two parties. The offended parties feel like they have received "gifts" and usually attempt to offer "gifts" in return. People are brought together, not pushed apart.

The thirst for "apologizing" in Washington these days, though, is all about pushing apart. If you ask me, it's a sorry spectacle, indeed.

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Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist, is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the author of "On Apology" (Oxford University Press).

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