Why is it so hard for leaders to say sorry?

Let me state here that in my attempt to write a sad and sorry column, I shall not spare old oppressors and occupiers.


Allan Jacob

Published: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 11:14 PM

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote American author William Faulkner. That line has haunted me. That's because modern leaders of former despotic and colonial regimes have failed to apologise for the cruelty and massacres that bloodied and shamed their histories.
Let me state here that in my attempt to write a sad and sorry column, I shall not spare old oppressors and occupiers. They must own up and take it on the chin, or on the knees like the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby did recently. Welby, the principal spiritual leader of the Church of England and the head of the Protestant Anglican Communion, fell on his knees and lay prostrate at the memorial for the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India, a 100 years ago.
For me, Welby's was the defining picture from last week  - a spiritual leader saying sorry for the sins of the once-mighty British empire. It was in contrast to many politiccal leaders who are fearful of the past, like it would consume them and taint their legacies.
In this era of showmanship, Welby's gesture took courage and humility. The act was symbolic but spoke for humanity. Critics would point out that it did not come from the British government, yet the gesture opened a window of opportunity for reconciliation between people - it was reverent and heartfelt. I forwarded the picture to some of my contacts. When I received no response from them, I was forced to conclude that they had found solace in being forgetful. But the unforgiving continue to inhabit the earth and that is cause for worry as more conflicts stare us in the face.
Back to Jallianwala Bagh, and the best the British government could do was to offer 'deep regret'. Former PM Theresa May said it without remorse this year, which only prolonged the agony of the victims' families. But Welby opened up and said: "The souls of those who were killed or wounded, of the bereaved, cry out to us from these stones and warn us about power and the misuse of power. This is a place of both sin and redemption, because you have remembered what they have done and their names will live, their memory will live before God. And I am so ashamed and sorry for the impact of this crime committed here."
Official figures put the toll as 379 people killed; another 1,200 were wounded in the firing ordered by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer that dark day. Winston Churchill used all the prose at his command to call it "an extraordinary event, a monstrous event." David Cameron, another former British PM said he was deeply shameful. Both were never sorry.
Shameful episodes from history demand a full apology from the countries that perpetrated mass crimes. Sadly, the focus has been on monetary reparations and not on true reconciliation - the main reason why people and nations cannot move on from their troubled past. The Black population in the United States is yet to receive an official direct apology for 250 years of slavery though there has been much talk of reparations from as early as 1894 when a bill was introduced in the US Senate. That bill would have granted direct payments to former slaves and even pensions. In 2008, 143 years after abolishment of slavery under the 13th Amendment, the US House of Representatives noted that even though the act of apology "cannot erase the past," it can help heal racial wounds "and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past." No president has explicitly apologised for the institution of slavery.
The nuclear destruction and dismemberment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945 that claimed more than 200,000 lives have been forgotten, so have the horrors of India's partition when over a million people were killed during the forced mass migration between India and Pakistan in 1947.
Heartfelt apologies are rare. Some leaders got close, but were still wide off the mark. "Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we have often sinned and we don't deny this. But that we were evil, malignant and mean - to that we say 'no'," said former South African president F. W. de Klerk when apartheid, the system of racial segregation in South Africa, was dismantled in 1993. It wasn't a complete apology, but was enough for Nelson Mandela to strike a deal with his former foe and lead a government of reconciliation.
Others tried only to fumble with meek regrets - the heavy hand of history weighing on their present standing in the world. The closest a world leader genuflected publicly and sought forgiveness was in 1970. Willy Brandt, the then West German chancellor knelt spontaneously at a memorial for Nazi victims of World War 2 in Warsaw, Poland. "Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims." he said. That moment seemed like eternity. Brandt's Kniefall von Warschau (kneeling in Warsaw) has remained the most humble moment of leadership and statesmanship the world has seen till date.
At Jallianwala Bagh, Welby was merely taking the healing process forward, albeit with spiritual edge by harnessing the power of forgiveness. The past can never be dead, like Faulkner said, but by apologising like Brandt or Welby, leaders can square off with history while shedding the guilt.

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