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Acknowledging Responsibility

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It was a moving moment. In the 9-11 Commission hearing, former Counterterrorism Director Richard Clarke turned toward family members of those who had been killed and said: “Your government failed you…. And I failed you. And for that failure, I would ask…for your understanding and your forgiveness.”

It was deeply appreciated. Widow Patty Casazza said Clarke’s apology was “the first time we have had a public apology by any of the officials that were in office on that terrible morning.”

The next evening, on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” Lehrer offered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld six opportunities to express remorse for government failure in preventing the attack. Each time he replied defensively about what he and the president did and did not do. He missed the chance to join Clarke in an act of healing wounds. Condoleezza Rice likewise ducked the opportunity in her hearing.

President Bush was asked the same question in three different ways during his news conference April 13. The first two times he fended off the question, but the third time it hit him square. He said he was at a loss to name any action or inaction he was sorry for. “Maybe I’m not quick on my feet,” he said. That was the closest he came to offering an apology.

“Acknowledgment of responsibility and seeking repentance and forgiveness” is a new, and invaluable, peacemaking practice. While imprisoned by Adolf Hitler, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a confession of his own and German responsibility for the Holocaust and for World War II. Churches then acknowledged their responsibility. Then Chancellor Willy Brandt and President Richard von Weizsäcker publicly acknowledged German responsibility for horrors committed during the Hitler period. It was warmly appreciated, and brought healing.

The practice is spreading:

–The Japanese Prime Minister acknowledged Japanese responsibility for injustices committed against Koreans during World War II, and Korea accepted it gratefully.

–President Bush’s father signed the bill for reparations payments to Japanese Americans interred during World War II.

–President Clinton went to Rwanda and Guatemala, acknowledging U.S. failure to prevent massacres there. Rwandans say it and apologies by the British and the United Nations have healed much anger and made a repeat massacre much less likely.

–The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa brought forth acknowledgments of responsibility for grave injustice during Apartheid.

But something is holding the Bush administration back.

It recalls the controversy over the president’s claims about Iraqi weapons in his State of the Union Address. The White House sought to put the blame on the CIA despite CIA warnings about errors in the speech.

The speech, of course, was the president’s, not the CIA’s. The president became especially passionate when he claimed that Iraq “had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax,… the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent,… an advanced nuclear weapons development program,… he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production… and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.” The responsibility for his address to the nation, and for diverting attention from Al Qaeda to Iraq, is his. A leader sets the tone for his staff’s veracity, and for its willingness to apologize for error.

In an award-winning study, Presidential Character, political scientist James David Barber diagnosed a presidential character type, including Richard Nixon. Presidents in this type each had some shame in their background, and sought to cover it over with claims of righteousness and power. When that righteousness and power were threatened, each got stuck desperately defending a rigid claim to rightness and refused to acknowledge responsibility, persisting in a course that people increasingly saw was untrue. Each came to a tragic end.

Would not some acknowledgment of error by President Bush help lance the boil of international resentment now directed against the U.S. government? Candidate Bush was right when he said we need a humbler foreign policy.

Glen Harold Stassen, a Baptist, is visiting fellow in the Joan B. Kroc Center for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and author/editor of two books on the practices of Just Peacemaking. This article appeared Sunday, April 18, in the Chicago Tribune.

Order Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context from Amazon.com.