A Sorry State: The Artlessness Of the Apology

Washington Post
May 8-9 2004

A Sorry State
The Artlessness Of the Apology

By Tony Judt

We live in the age of the public apology. When a crisis occurs or a
scandal is exposed, the first instinct of many public figures today
is to erupt in a torrent of remorse. From Bill Clinton’s 1992 apology
to his wife for his sexual infidelities to the notorious 1998 Oprah
Winfrey show where guests apologized to people they had “hurt,”
saying sorry has become all the rage. On the Oprah show experts even
offered tips on how to apologize. “Don’t be afraid to apologize,” the
incomparable Ms. Winfrey advised on her Web site. “Apologizing to
your child doesn’t mean you lose.”

President Bush could have used a few such tips this month. Faced with
the evidence of serial abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers,
Bush condemned, decried and regretted; but he didn’t apologize for a
week. In a world where victims — real or presumptive — demand not
merely justice but penitence, the president’s reluctance became a
political issue in its own right.

For the second time this spring the Bush administration was caught up
in the media’s passion for public contrition. In late March the
public commission investigating security lapses before 9/11 was
transformed into a daytime soap opera. Would Condoleezza Rice follow
Richard Clarke’s cue and offer a telegenic “sorry” for letting it all
happen? How would she “look” if she did offer an all-points apology?
And — of even greater media interest — how would she look if she

Rice is a mediocre national security adviser but a good tactician. By
refusing to express remorse (“I don’t think that there is anyone who
is not sorry for the terrible loss that these families endured,” she
told Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes,” but she added, “the best thing that
we can do for the future of this country is to focus on those who did
this to us.”), she paid a small price in the congeniality stakes
while keeping journalists’ attention firmly diverted from anything
that mattered. It was Rice’s present sentiments, rather than her past
actions, that held center stage. We used to pay attention to what
public figures did and what they thought. Now all we really want to
know is how they feel. And everyone, even the president,
enthusiastically obliges.

Public apologies used to be a very serious matter — that’s why they
were so uncommon. In the past, when faced with bad news, politicians
would do anything rather than confess. Typically, they dissimulated.
Rather than tell you how they felt about something unpleasant for
which they might be held accountable, they just issued denials: “It
never happened.” Later, when denial was no longer possible, they
downplayed the matter: “All right, it happened, but it wasn’t as bad
as you say.” And then, later still, when the scale of the crime or
scandal was clear to all, they would concede that, “Well, yes, it
happened and it was every bit as bad as you say. But it’s all so long
ago — why dredge up the past?”

That is still the response in cultures where the public confession of
failure or misbehavior carries heavy social penalties. In Japan, the
wartime mistreatment of Chinese and Koreans is still mired in
semi-denial and official mis-memory. Turkish authorities — and many
Turks — shift uncomfortably between exculpatory re-description and
outright denial when confronted with the massacre of the Armenians.
Australia’s leaders no longer deny the near-genocide of the
Aborigines, but it is such old news that they refuse to dwell on it.

Even where international pressure has made official “regrets” and
restitution unavoidable, as in the case of the Holocaust, heartfelt
official remorse is rare — the recent apology by President Alexander
Kwasniewski for his countrymen’s part in the destruction of their
Jewish neighbors was all the more effective for being unprecedented
in Poland.

The public apology, in short, is not a universal political response
to bad news. But in the United States, where virtually everyone
(except the 43rd president) apologizes at the first opportunity, it
has a very different resonance. This does seem to be a distinctively
American development. True, Tony Blair also indulges in it, but then
in his well-advertised religiosity and his propensity to wax
moralistic, Blair is the most “American” prime minister in modern
British history. He is also of an age with Bill Clinton, Al Gore,
George W. Bush and other baby boomers molded by the pedagogical
revolution of the ’60s and the narcissistic preoccupations of the

For this generation of political leaders — and followers — it has
always been important to have the right sort of feelings and to
display them copiously. Thus (according to his spokesman) President
Bush — hitherto seemingly immune to the sensibilities of his
generation — feels sorry for the “pain caused” by the publication of
pictures and reports of American soldiers torturing Iraqis. In Bush’s
own words he feels “bad” about what happened, “sorry for the
humiliation” of Iraqi prisoners. He might not say that he exactly
“feels their pain” — that is a more distinctively Clintonian
sentiment — but it is the same general idea: Saying “sorry” makes it
better. The victim feels better and so does the perpetrator —
indeed, you score a triple: You are good, you do good and you feel

The preferred use of sorry, however, is in the formulation “I’m sorry
that such and such happened,” distancing the speaker from any
connection to the events, thereby relieving the speaker of any need
for self-examination.

But in any case, in its transition from private relations to public
affairs, the apology encounters some intriguing paradoxes. In the
first place, it is self-undermining. As anyone knows who has ever
dealt with young children, saying “sorry” has a dual purpose: It
concedes guilt and exculpates the perpetrator. “I said I’m sorry —
why are you still upset?” Thus President Bush undoubtedly hopes that
by saying how sorry he feels that his army has disgraced itself he
can speedily put the affair behind him. But in this he is surely

In our age of instant remorse the currency of penitence has been
hyperinflated and has lost almost all its value. Most of those who
heard the president expressing his regrets, above all the Arab and
Muslim audience to which they were primarily directed, will have
echoed the celebrated response of Mandy Rice-Davies at the height of
the Christine Keeler affair in Swinging London, when Lord Astor
denied under oath that he had been involved with her: “Well, he would
say that, wouldn’t he?”

Moreover, while the president’s regrets are doubtless heartfelt, his
skeptical international audience is likely to reflect that he is no
less “sorry” that the news leaked out. He may also come to rue the
carefully qualified apologies offered by his subordinates: Maj. Gen.
Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Abu Ghraib prison, first offered his
apologies and then spent some time explaining that what he was
referring to were the “illegal or unauthorized acts” of “a small
number of soldiers.” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. army spokesman
in Iraq, similarly qualified his expression of regrets — “a small
number of soldiers doing the wrong thing.” Such grudging, formulaic
repentance (alleged sodomy “with a chemical light and perhaps a
broomstick” is now “the wrong thing”?) merely calls attention to its
own inadequacy — and invites charges of bad faith.

So what is a democratic leader to do? If you apologize too soon it
rings false — particularly to foreign audiences unfamiliar with the
American cult of contrition. But if you stay silent it suggests
callous indifference or a coverup. The crimes in Abu Ghraib and
elsewhere are not comparable to My Lai in Vietnam or other atrocities
committed in the heat of battle by terrified GIs and inadequate
officers. They were born of that arrant indifference to laws,
regulations, rights and rules that has characterized this
administration from the outset, and that was bound, sooner or later,
to percolate down to the sergeants and mercenaries who do the dirty
work. Thus Bush had no option but to acknowledge immediately that
terrible things had been done in Iraq — and he would be wise to make
sure that he has been told and is telling the whole story. But a
public expression of his pain and sorrow will no longer suffice.

What is missing in the modern American cult of “sorry” is any sense
of responsibility. Whether it concerns the incompetence of the
security apparatus before 9/11, a misguided and failed imperial
adventure, the mismanagement and degradation of the army, or the
criminal behavior of Americans in Iraq, everyone feels “bad” and
everyone expresses “regret.” But until Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld testified on Friday, no one even hinted at feeling
“responsible.” According to Bush (interviewed on the U.S.-funded Al
Hurra Arabic language television network), “We believe in
transparency, because we’re a free society. That’s what free
societies do. If there’s a problem, they address those problems in a
forthright, upfront manner.” Except, of course, we don’t.

For in the very next sentence, Bush assures his interlocutor that
“I’ve got confidence in the secretary of defense, and I’ve got
confidence in the commanders on the ground . . . because they and our
troops are doing great work on behalf of the Iraqi people.” So the
commanders are off the hook.

Meanwhile the New York Times (on May 6) carries a touching little
story about the confused and helpless GIs who actually did the
torturing, claiming that they were following orders/ had no orders/
misunderstood those orders/ were themselves misunderstood/ suffered
great stress at the time/ are suffering even greater stress now —
and so forth.

Everyone is sorry “it” happened. But unless its leaders can get
beyond that sanctimonious and self-serving response, the United
States is in deep trouble. If Rumsfeld (who on Friday offered his
“deepest apology”), Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz or
Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard B. Myers were honorable men they would
resign in shame. But they are not.

If Bush were of presidential caliber he would have sacked them by now
— and taken full personal responsibility for their incompetence. But
wherever the buck stops these days, it surely is not on the
president’s desk. Yet nothing short of such an old-fashioned
assumption of duty can now retrieve America’s standing in the
community of nations.

To the rest of the world Bush’s apologies are mere exercises in
damage control. The same president who spoke of leading God’s crusade
against Evil and who basked in the self-congratulatory aura of his
invincible warriors will have difficulty convincing the rest of
humanity that he really cares about a few brutalized Arabs.

Given the president’s simultaneous and reiterated insistence that
neither he nor his staff have done anything wrong and that there is
nothing to change in his policies or goals, who will take seriously
such an apology, extracted in extremis? Like confessions obtained
under torture, it is worthless. As recent events have shown, America
under Bush can still debase and humiliate its enemies. But it has
lost the respect of its friends — and it is fast losing respect for
itself. Now that is something to feel sorry about.

Tony Judt is the Remarque professor of European studies at New York