Tony Judt: The cult of contrition

The apologies of Bush and Rumsfeld are simply exercises in damage control

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We live in the age of the apology. When a crisis occurs or a scandal is exposed, the first instinct of many public figures is to erupt in a torrent of remorse. These inexhaustible gushers of contrition have raised everyone's expectations: victims - real or presumptive - demand not merely justice but penitence; and journalists happily comply. That is how the public commission investigating the security lapses before 11 September 2001 was transformed into a soap opera. Would Condoleezza Rice take her cue from the former White House aide Richard Clarke and offer a telegenic "sorry"? How would she "look" if she did offer an all-points apology? And - of even greater media interest - how would she look if she didn't?

We live in the age of the apology. When a crisis occurs or a scandal is exposed, the first instinct of many public figures is to erupt in a torrent of remorse. These inexhaustible gushers of contrition have raised everyone's expectations: victims - real or presumptive - demand not merely justice but penitence; and journalists happily comply. That is how the public commission investigating the security lapses before 11 September 2001 was transformed into a soap opera. Would Condoleezza Rice take her cue from the former White House aide Richard Clarke and offer a telegenic "sorry"? How would she "look" if she did offer an all-points apology? And - of even greater media interest - how would she look if she didn't?

Rice is a good tactician. By refusing to express remorse she paid a small price in the congeniality stakes while keeping journalists' attention diverted. Her present sentiments, not her past actions, held centre stage. We used to question what public figures did and thought. Now all we want to know is how they feel. And everyone obliges.

This is a recent development. In the past, faced with bad news, politicians typically dissimulated. They issued denials: "it never happened". Later, when denial was no longer possible, they downplayed the matter: "it happened, but it wasn't as bad as you say". Later still, when the scale of the scandal was clear, they would concede "well, yes, it happened and it was as bad as you say. But it's all so long ago - why dredge up the past?"

That is still the response in many places. In Japan, the wartime mistreatment of Chinese and Koreans is mired in semi-denial and official mis-memory. Turkish authorities shift between exculpatory re-description and outright denial when confronted with the early 20th-century 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 with the Holocaust, heartfelt official remorse is rare - the recent apology by Poland's President Kwasniewski for his countrymens' part in the destruction of their Jewish neighbours was all the more effective for being unprecedented.

The public apologyseems to be characteristically American - 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 Bush and other baby-boomers moulded in the narcissistic preoccupations of the Sixties.

For this generation of political leaders - and followers - it has always been important to have the right sort of feelings and to display them. Thus (according to his spokesman) President Bush feels sorry for the "pain caused" by the pictures and reports of US soldiers torturing Iraqis. In Bush's words he feels "bad", "sorry for the humiliation" of Iraqi prisoners. He might not say that he "feels their pain" - a more Clintonian sentiment - but it is the same idea. In a generation raised on the cult of self-improvement, you are a better man if you feel better about yourself: and saying "sorry" unquestionably makes you feel better. It also makes the victim feel better - so you score a triple: you are good, you do good and you feel good.

But in its transition from private relations to public affairs, the apology encounters intriguing paradoxes. First, it is self-undermining. As anyone knows who has young children, saying "sorry" has a dual purpose: it concedes guilt and exculpates the perpe- trator: "I said I'm sorry - why are you still upset?" Thus Bush undoubtedly hopes that by saying how sorry he feels he can put the affair behind him.

In our age of instant remorse, the currency of penitence has been hyper-inflated and has almost lost 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 Mandy Rice-Davies's celebrated response of at the height of the Christine Keeler affair, when Lord Astor denied he had been involved with her: "Well, he would, wouldn't he?"

Moreover, the President's international audience is likely to reflect that he is no less "sorry" that the news leaked out. He may also come to rue the qualified apologies of his subordinates: Major-General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Abu Ghraib jail, explained that these were the "illegal or unauthorised acts" of "a small number of soldiers". For Brigadier General Kimmitt, the US army spokesman in Iraq, it was just "a small number of soldiers doing the wrong thing". Such grudging, formulaic repentance (sodomy with a broomstick "the wrong thing"?) calls attention to its own inadequacy - and invites charges of bad faith.

So what is a democratic leader to do? Apologise too soon and it rings false - particularly to foreign audiences unfamiliar with the US cult of contrition. But if you stay silent it suggests indifference or a cover-up. The crimes in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere are not comparable to My Lai or other battlefield atrocities committed by terrified GIs and inadequate officers. They were born of an arrant indifference to laws, rights and rules that has characterised this administration from the outset and that was bound, sooner or later, to filter down to the sergeants and mercenaries who do the dirty work. Thus Bush (and now Donald Rumsfeld) had no option but to acknowledge that terrible things have been done in Iraq - and the President would be wise to make sure that he has been told and is telling the whole story. But public expression of his sorrow is no longer enough.

What is missing in the modern US cult of "sorry" is any sense of responsibility. Whether it concerns the incompetence of the security apparatus be- fore 11 September; a misguided and failed imperial adventure; the mismanagement and degradation of the army; or the criminal behaviour of Americans in Iraq: everyone feels "bad", everyone expresses "regret" - but no one feels "responsible". According to Bush (interviewed on Al Hurra), "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, up-front manner." Except we don't.

For in the next sentence, Bush states "I've got confidence in the Secretary of Defence and the commanders on the ground - because they and our troops are doing great work on behalf of the Iraqi people." Meanwhile, The New York Times (6 May) carries a touching little story of the confused and helpless GIs who did the torturing, claim- ing they were following orders/had no orders/misunderstood those orders/were misunderstood/ suffered great stress/ are suffering greater stress, and so on.

Everyone is sorry "it" happened - or as Rumsfeld phrased it at the Congressional hearings, "responsible" for "not understanding and knowing that there were hundreds - or however many there are of these things [photos] - that could eventually end up in the public and do the damage they've done". But unless US leaders can get beyond these self-serving responses, America is in deep trouble. If Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz or General Richard Myers were honourable they would resign in shame. If Bush were of presidential calibre he would have sacked them by now - and taken responsibility for such incompetence. But wherever the buck stops these days, it is not on the President's desk. Yet nothing short of an old-fashioned assumption of duty can now retrieve US standing in the community of nations.

To the rest of the world, Bush's apologies are just 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 cares about a few brutalised Arabs. Given his continuing insistence that neither he nor his staff has done anything wrong and that there is nothing to change in his policies or goals, who will take seriously such an apology? Like confessions obtained under torture, it is worthless. As recent events have shown, the US under President 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 director of the Remarque Institute at New York University

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