It’s a bit difficult to fathom why so many professional commentators are reacting to efforts to defuse the serious unrest in Afghanistan with dyspepsia. Specifically, and rather oddly, the opposition to America’s approach (which has now come from pundits on both sides of the political spectrum) seems to target the very concept of apology, or at least ‘collective’ apology.
Last Friday, Charles Krauthammer called the official mea culpa over a recent incident of Koran-burning “embarrassing,” “groveling,” and “abject self-debasement” on Americans’ part and argued that, if any remorse needed to be expressed at all, “we should’ve had a single apology from the commander on the ground and that’s it.” Then, over the weekend, Muqtedar Khan voiced unease with the apologies in the Washington Post , hinting that they’re essentially meaningless because they were not accompanied (or prefigured) by a total and immediate change of behavior and protocol.
The reason General John Allen, the commander in charge, issued an apology on behalf of his troops is that, as recent discussions of ‘military virtues’ on this blog have pointed out, responsibility in an army is assigned collectively. It’s also because Afghan society is both heavily communal (tribal, really) and deeply religious. A collective statement of that sort makes sense to locals. Krauthammer (and other critics) seem to view the offense through a thoroughly individual lens which finds scant analogy there.
But I admit that, with limited knowledge of the situation, a judgment on whether the Army’s apology was in this instance wise must be withheld. Nevertheless, the concept of a collective apology is not only relevant to this particular case. It’s a concept that stands on its own, stemming from an understanding of responsibility that goes far beyond the untenable individualistic ethos critics seem to be pining for. It finds an analogy in the Church, where the notion of sacrificing for the conversion of others (and even taking on reparation for their sins) is essential. Indeed, without negating each person’s individuality, our collective responsibility is exemplified in the Paschal Mystery. We “unfairly” inherit the effects of original sin, and “I didn’t cause the problem” stands as a thin excuse for inaction against the wide-ranging effects of others’ disobedience. The good or evil one believer does is not severable from the health of the Body as a whole.
Obviously a nation is not an individual, or a church, and that analogy is inexact. Nor ought any group obsess over its past, plunging itself into an endless game of historical deconstruction and victim-soothing, the sort of rabbit hole excursion many perfectly noble institutions have indeed drifted into. But the alternative to this politically-correct excess should not be the opposite excess of never acknowledging fault. If a corporate entity is to claim collective triumphs and disseminate them in a shared culture, neither can it disown its shortcomings or relegate them exclusively to single people. In rare circumstances where a collective apology may be helpful and credible, it’s hardly “grovelling” to issue one. In fact, it can be the mature, sane thing to do; the sign of a person or organization that understands that even ‘isolated’ moral failings have a ripple effect.
It’s also the kind of act that can restore credibility. Pope John Paul II made a public apology for the failings of some Catholics in World War II, to “every woman” for abstract historical “injustices” committed against their sex, and even for the burning of Jan Hus in 1415, despite a conspicuous dearth of remaining eyewitnesses to that event. These apologies alone, of course, hardly abolish the dilemmas they address. But neither do they count for nothing. They’re merely the beginning of a long reparative process, but even a first step to reconciliation is markedly different than the moral chaos which precedes it. If an individual who categorically refuses to apologize is not only churlish but sinister, how much more so for churches and states, “man writ large.” In the long run, that prideful stance can breed more pandemonium—whether on the streets of Kabul or in individual human hearts—than any single slip-up.