Thursday, December 1, 2005
Michael Henderson

Though apologies have an important place in healing national and international relations, it is often difficult to know when they are appropriate.

THE BRITISH Prime Minister, Tony Blair, apologizes to those wrongly imprisoned for the 1974 Guildford bombings and is roundly attacked for doing so. The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, refuses to apologize for the way the government treated the Aboriginal people and is pilloried for not doing so. President Bill Clinton, visiting Africa, is denounced for apologizing for slavery as 'attacking his own country in a foreign land' and Queen Elizabeth II is faulted on a visit to Pakistan for not apologizing for the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919.

I am not suggesting that these actions or inactions were right or that the criticisms were valid or invalid. I am only putting forward the thought that, though apologies have an important place in healing national and international relations, it is often difficult to know when they are appropriate.

You can apologize too soon and you can apologize too late, you can apologize superficially and you can apologize for some things when perhaps you should also be apologizing for others. Your sincerity and your motives are always open to question, and political considerations often play a significant role. It would be wise too for countries to remember the words of one columnist, 'Very few of us in this world are on moral ground unassailably high enough to demand apologies, without triggering off other demands for apologies.'

Most of us realize that some kind of apology, preferably sincere, keeps normal human interaction going. But when is it appropriate to apologize on larger issues? Is there a statute of limitations on exhuming the past? When and where do reparations come into the equation? Who deserves an apology? Are there any precepts we can follow?

Whether you hold the 'black armband view' of history or the 'three cheers view' of history, help is at hand. I have just read a new book by Dr Donald Shriver, who sheds light on some of these moral conundrums. The title: Honest Patriots: loving a country enough to remember its misdeeds (OUP, USA, 2005).

In this thoughtful volume Shriver takes two case studies, post-war Germany and post-apartheid South Africa, and discusses in depth what the people of those two countries have done to come to grips with the past. Then he moves on to his own country, the US, and what has, has not and needs to be done to heal relations between the majority community and the African Americans and native Americans.

Following Hurricane Katrina, when the economic circumstances of many African Americans were laid bare for the world to see, his words have even greater than usual appropriateness. Shriver suggests that a coalition of leaders from Western Europe, Africa and the Americas might some day make a collective admission of their role in the slave trade. 'Were the Western world to mount an African version of the 1947 Marshall Plan, along with confession that African slaves helped furnish no small part of Western wealth over several centuries, descendants of both perpetrators and victims of slavery, on all three continents, might then look each other in the eye with overdue historical honesty.'

Roaming over other areas where apologies might be in order the author even suggests that there was an aspect of America's Revolutionary War that has never been faced: the murders, burning of farms and expropriation of the property of those who fought on the British side. 'To my knowledge no government of the United States has ever offered a representative apology to either Canadians or British for patriot mistreatment of the Tories,' Shriver writes.

I discovered recently that my great, great, great uncle has been described by a Canadian historian as 'the worst traitor in Canadian history and the man who bears the greatest responsibility for the burning of Washington in 1814'. Should I apologize next time I visit?

American TV journalist Bill Moyers writes, 'Donald Shriver's book shines with a love of America that embraces our ideals without denying our faults.'

Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate', Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X. Visit his website at