April 7, 2007 (2 articles)
Why is it so hard to say 'I'm sorry'?
Roger Chesley, The Virginian-Pilot
He can't get back the years he's lost in prison, but former death row inmate
Earl Washington Jr. will receive nearly $2 million from the state in a
tentative settlement agreement. After the mildly retarded man falsely
confessed to a 1982 rape-slaying, he came within days of being executed.
Here's something Washington hasn't gotten: an official apology from Virginia
for trying to kill him. It wasn't part of the civil lawsuit. However,
attorneys for Washington, 46, have sought to amend an earlier pardon by
then-Gov. Gilmore to make it clear that Washington was totally innocent of
the crime. DNA evidence exonerated him and implicated another man.
What about the fact that Washington, as he approached his execution date,
could hear the electric chair being tested, and could see the prison lights
dim? Too bad. "He still has nightmares from time to time," attorney Bob Hall
"We don't have any right to insist on an apology," Hall added. "It would be
a nice act on the part" of the state.
Indeed it would. Yet that reluctance to publicly express remorse has come up
in several high-profile incidents of late.
The General Assembly this year passed a resolution acknowledging "profound
regret" for the enslavement of African Americans and the exploitation of
Native Americans, and to "call for reconciliation among all Virginians."
Pretty tame stuff, given the oppressive conditions that blacks and American
Indians faced in the commonwealth. Mind you, this resolution is symbolic,
and comes nearly 150 years after slavery ended. Nor does it mention, even
tangentially, the issue of reparations.
Yet Del. Frank Hargrove of Hanover caused a firestorm when he stated that
"black citizens should get over" slavery, an astounding view given the
legacy of that peculiar institution. How many other people feel as he does?
In an obvious face-saving gesture, Hargrove later proposed a resolution,
which passed the House, establishing the third Saturday in June as a day to
celebrate the end of slavery.
Speaking of apologies, the North Carolina Senate on Thursday unanimously
approved a measure expressing "profound contrition" for that state
Overseas, the Japanese prime minister recently caught flak for his faux
apologies about that nation's practice of forcing women to work as sex
slaves during World War II. Shinzo Abe used the term "comfort women," a
despicable euphemism that belies the involuntary nature faced by as many as
200,000 wartime women, most from Korea and China.
Why is it so difficult to just come out and say, I'm sorry?
Because it's painful, says Howard Zehr, co-director of the Center for
Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg.
"You have to name something in the past you don't want to think about."
Certainly, in my view, the longer it takes to give an apology probably
lessens its value. In Earl Washington's case, it would perhaps mean
something more because he's still alive. But do such public mea culpas even
make a difference?
They can, Zehr said in an interview. But they must be part of a process that
includes naming the harm, expressing sincere regret and committing to
avoiding the specific bad acts in the future.
Zehr also said such statements of contrition can make a difference on scales
much smaller than the state or national level. For example, he works with
crime victims and their offenders, and apologies often provide a measure of
healing. "It's amazing sometimes what an apology means to victims," he told
me in an interview. "It's not everything. But it's incredible when somebody
takes responsibility and genuinely apologizes."
Is it mere window dressing? Possibly.
"There may not be anything tangible," Zehr conceded. "But... there's often a
"It means a great deal a lot of times, to both the victim and offender."
Which got me to thinking: Do I really care, a century and a half later, that
the commonwealth has apologized for slavery, even though it ended in 1865,
and even though race relations have progressed dramatically from their
Source : The Virginian-Pilot (Roger Chesley is associate editor of The
Pilot's editorial page. Reach him at (757) 446-2329 or at