Saturday, April 23, 2005

Saying sorry 

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offers perhaps the fullest apology ever given on behalf of his country, and certainly in the biggest international forum yet, at a Jakarta summit of Asian and African leaders:
"In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations... Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind."
I've never been a big fun of historical apologies. For me, being sorry implies accepting personal responsibility for your own wrongful actions; I hit you, I was wrong, I'm sorry. Apologizing on behalf of others, even if they're your ancestors or fellow countrymen and women is from a moral perspective an altogether different kettle of fish.

I don't believe that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. For example, I do not believe that a 33-year old German owes me, a Pole, an apology for the Second World War, a 33-year old Russian for inflicting communism on my homeland, or a 33-year old Japanese for the war in Pacific and mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war. By the same token I don't expect to have to say sorry for any past wrongs committed by my fellow Poles, or Australians, or white males.

I also don't believe that the sins of past governments are visited on their successors. For example, the Bush administration is not responsible for its predecessors' support of the institution of slavery. The argument is even stronger in the case of past misdeeds by non-democratic governments.

The best we can do, instead, is to acknowledge that the past wrongs were indeed wrong, feel a regret that these things ever occurred, be committed to ensuring that our generation will not let it happen again, and move on in the spirit of not letting the past be a constant slow poison infecting the future.

Thus, getting back to our initial example, I don't think that the issue should be whether Junichiro Koizumi is sorry, either as an individual Japanese or as the voice of the Japanese government, for the actions he had nothing to do with, but which were taken by his countrymen over sixty years ago and sanctioned by the Japanese government. The real issue is that there are still too many people in Japan, particularly important people, who don't think that Japan has done anything wrong during the war, people who continue to venerate war criminals and try to whitewash history.

Lest I be accused of hypocrisy and "do as I say, not as I so" attitude, I'm going to go out on a limb here and perhaps incur wrath of some of my fellow Poles. In a few weeks' time we will be commemorating the end of the Second World War, with official celebrations to be held in Moscow. I know that many Poles and other Eastern and Central Europeans think this would be an opportune time - although they know it's not going to happen - for Vladimir Putin to make a clean break with the past and apologize for communization of the region, for prisons and gulags, for mass graves and forced exiles.

I, too, don't expect Putin to say sorry - but I also don't think he needs to. What would be infinitely more important would be an acknowledgment that he and the people he represents understand that imposition of communist rule was wrong and so was killing and imprisoning millions of people and denying the Eastern Europe its freedom for almost five decades. And what would be infinitely more productive would be a commitment not to let dictatorship and violence to ever re-emerge, and to ensure that we can all work together to build a better, freer and more peaceful future.


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