Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ten commandments in modern societies -8

“The more powerful one is, the less meaningful his apology is.”

Apology means one regrets his action, pays for the damage as much as he can, and takes concrete steps to prevent future mistakes. 

Individuals and entities such as companies say sorry all the time and often pay restitution voluntarily or as ordered by courts.  But the situation is entirely different when it comes to governments and governmental agencies such as the military.

Nobody can deny that government actions have inflicted the most damage to humanity in the past 300 years, perhaps longer.  This is because power has been vastly concentrated since the Industrial Revolution.  The ability to kill and destroy by direct and indirect means has also skyrocketed.  The trend shows no signs of abating, neither does the insatiable viciousness of the governments and elites. 

Take the US federal government as an example.  It has good (e.g., WWII) and bad records.  When it does something wrong, we expect it to say sorry.  Indeed many time it did, but to what effect?

In most if not all cases, we will see that the apology comes very late, bears little substance, or offers no guarantee against future offenses.  So if an easy statement is all about us feeling good and washing dirt off ourselves, then why not?   

Like apology for slavery.  Slavery was practiced for 400 years before being abolished officially in the US following the Civil War.  Only in recent years did the Congress issue a few pieces of paper (e.g., and ( that apologized for slavery minus any true consequences such as reparation.  Practical concerns aside (like who will get paid what), it is curious how the always self-righteous gentlemen forgot to apologize when everybody was still alive.

Another example is the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882.  Anybody who arrived at the US shore automatically became a US citizen then, just not Chinese, who if present in the US suffered many forms of racial discriminations by the Act as well.  It was repealed in 1943 only after China and the US became WWII allies.  On June 18, 2012, the Congress passed a statement of "regret".  Needlessly to say, it is pure words. 

There are a few exceptions to the rule.  For the Japanese interned in the US during WWII, a resolution apologized for it over 40 years later, and a puny $1.6 billion was paid.  Same with the Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiments by the US.  One must note that these horrendous acts paled in comparison in brutality to many other atrocities by the US governments, such as many past and present wars.

Enough about the history, how about now?  The US is actively engaged in multiple wars and sanctions around the globe.  Most notably, in Afghanistan, killing is a daily occurrence.  A routine after 10 years of fighting is well-known: First, the US reports an air strike or night raid kills a number of militants.  The local people say a number of civilians instead including women and children are dead.  The US denies it.  Pictures show the bodies.  For the one thousandth time the Afghanistan President demands US stop.  The US admits “collateral damage” and apologizes and pays $2000 per death.  Then the US reports an air strike or night raid kills a number of militants….  According to NYT the US military is getting better at apologizing to the Afghans; but when apologizing is a game, it becomes a joke.

One can bet that the US government will continue to offer apologies for the many wrong things it did and do, including violating the civil rights of US citizens, but only at a safe distance many years later. 

The above characterizations are not intended to apply exclusively to the US government, as any government will do.  Only that the US government is one of the most powerful ones in the past 200 years, the most powerful the last 100 years, and the unchallenged one the last 30 years.  With a docile citizenry subdued by fear and propaganda, the US government has an unchecked power as it can be.

Any explanation for the disconnect between governmental apology and reality?  The usual legalese cover is that government has too many considerations.  Like, who the victims are, how much to pay, what will follow, etc.  As one ponders and time goes by, one has less urgency and incentive to apologize.  The public is not enthusiastic about apologizing to a segment of the population, much less to foreigners, in protection of the country’s image and own tax money.  The primary factor, however, is that the government is not compelled to do so, unlike a loser in a war being dictated by the winner.  The only constrain is one’s own conscience, which means little for politicians. 

So far what has been written is not really a commandment, which is what one should do in spite.  Forget about demanding empty regrets from the governments.  The citizenry needs to know what the government does.  Clearly the less need for apologizing, the better.  Next, follow up with any governmental regret.  What does it mean, does it have teeth, does any one get punished?  Don’t let apologizing become a game that sheds real responsibilities by the rich and powerful. 

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