Gorman Beauchamp: Today's tendency to make amends for the crimes of history raises the question: where do we stop?

[Gorman Beauchamp, associate professor of humanities at the University of Michigan, is the author of a book on Jack London and essays on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to science fiction.]

We live amid a veritable tsunami of apology. The Catholic Church, which, of course, has much to apologize for, has, of late, offered mea culpas to Galileo, the Jews, the gypsies, Jan Hus, whom it burned at the stake in 1415, even to Constantinople (now Istanbul) for its sacking 800 years ago by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, an event for which the late John Paul II expressed “deep regret.” No wonder that a group in England, claiming descent from the medieval Knights Templars, is asking the Vatican to apologize for the violent suppression of the order and for torturing to death its Grand Master Jacques de Molay in 1314, an apology timed to commemorate the 700th anniversary of that fell deed. In America, the National Council of Churches apologized to Native Americans for Europeans’ discovering their continent and appropriating their land (but did not return any church’s specific holdings to any specific tribe). The United Church of Canada followed suit, officially apologizing to Canada’s native peoples for wrongs inflicted by the church; the native peoples, however, officially rejected the apology.

The current lieutenant governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, personally presented the leaders of the Mormon church with a copy of his state legislature’s House Resolution 793, expressing “official regret” for the 1844 murder of Joseph Smith and the expulsion of his followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The language asking for “pardon and forgiveness” was toned down when certain lawmakers protested that they could not ask for forgiveness for acts that they had not personally committed — a retrograde notion, apparently, of individual responsibility. Tony Blair, as British prime minister, apologized to the Irish for his nation’s insensitivity to the plight of the victims of the Potato Famine in the 1840s. A hundred years after the event, the U.S. Congress offered a formal apology to the Hawaiians for the overthrow of their monarchy in 1893. The French parlement unanimously adopted a law stating that “the trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade, perpetuated from the 15th century against Africans, Amerindians, Malagasies and Indians, constitutes a crime against humanity”: the centuries of slavery before the 15th and the slavery of other peoples do not, apparently, constitute such a crime, at least in France.

In 2005 the U.S. Senate formally apologized for something that it had not done: make lynching a federal crime. Such a record of inaction, claimed one of the resolution’s sponsors, constituted a “stain on the United States Senate.” True enough, no doubt, but one of how many? Imagine if the United States or any other government began apologizing not only for sins of commission but for those of omission: an infinite regress of culpability.

My favorite apology so far, however, appeared in a brief Reuters account. “Villagers of the tiny settlement of Nubutautau [Fiji] wept as they apologized to the descendants of a British missionary killed and eaten by their ancestors 136 years ago,” the news agency reported. “The villagers and the relatives of the missionary, the Rev. Thomas Baker, were taking part in a complex ritual intended to lift a curse the locals say has caused an extended run of bad luck.” A cow was slaughtered and kisses given to the 11 relatives of the missionary by the village chief, Ratu Filimoni Nawawabalavu, “a descendant of the chief who cooked the missionary.” No word on whether the curse lifted.

I would never denigrate any civilized response of anyone for harm he may have done or misbehavior he may have engaged in. But apologies offered by people to their contemporaries for actions taken long before any of them were born strike me as vacuous and more than a little exhibitionistic. The events and practices eliciting apology are, in varying degrees, horrific, of course, but history is filled with others equally horrifying. Why should the pope apologize for the sacking of Constantinople but not for, say, the massacre of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem — Muslims, Jews, and even Eastern Christians — in 1009, when the city fell to the forces of the First Crusade? If the pope apologizes for the treatment of Galileo, what of the much crueler fate of Giordano Bruno or Cecco d’Ascoli, encyclopedist, scientist, and poet, burned at the stake in Florence in 1327, the fire fueled with the pages of his own books? ...

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omar ibrahim baker - 12/4/2007

Sadly lacking in this chronicle of apologies for past crimes is a British/US, as accessories to the crime, but mainly Zionist -Jewish apology for a more recent crime, namely: the DISLOCATION, ETHNIC CLEANSING, DISPOSSESSION, DISFRANCHISEMENT AND SUJUGATION of the Palestinian people , both Moslems and Christians, from and in their homeland and their sup plantation by JEWS to establish the aggressive and colonialist and ever expanding nation/state of Israel in Palestine.

However, and as implied above, apology will not suffice ; concrete action must be taken which in this case would be the immediate implementation, by the Israeli removal of all obstacles to, the Palestinians' Right of Return to their homeland and the repossession of their legitimate property

Arnold Shcherban - 12/1/2007

Timely article.
I would add that instead of vacuously apologizing for the wrongs
done in the ancient past, how about
not perpetrating essentially the same misdeeds, leading to even more victims, (of course this time out of perfectly noble intentions) NOW.

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