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One Sorry Editorial

July 22, 2001

Sorry to point this out, but have you noticed all of the public apologies floating around these days? We have millenniums of apology-free persecutions, executions, crusades, revolutions and retaliations. Roman legions didn't apologize: "Sorry for the sacking, but we need to build more aqueducts." Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Henry VIII and others lived sorry-free public lives.

Today, however, it appears almost everyone needs to apologize publicly--unless they blow up 168 people, throw a little dog into traffic or are elected and hide an affair with a missing intern. The bumper apology crop may be good: people feeling more apologetic and contrite. It may be bad: people doing more things to apologize for. Or maybe with today's ubiquitous mass media we just know more about what's always been going on but now requires professed public regret.

Sorry, we only know that sorriness is everywhere. The pope basically apologizes to the world for church wrongs over 2,000 years. President Bush more or less apologizes to China over a plane-bumping. The FBI spy's wife apologizes for her husband's national betrayal. Biographer Joseph Ellis apologizes for creating a false bio of himself. The Los Angeles Zoo apologizes for a toe-biting on behalf of its Komodo dragon. Athletes apologize to teammates and even opponents for misbehaving. Eminem, the rapper, doesn't apologize for brutal lyrics, but John Rocker, the pitcher, expresses regret for intolerant remarks.

It's intriguing in an age of instant communications, when the word "please" has so nearly been deleted from the vocabulary, that people still feel obligated to at least appear regretful. When President Clinton's initial regret over Monica Lewinsky wasn't deemed clear enough, he apologized again. Even airlines feel compelled at times to apologize publicly for poor service, though not the food. Newspapers too have publicly regretted misteaks.

So required have modern public apologies become that international incidents erupt over the lack of some. Japan's continued refusal to forthrightly apologize for wartime atrocities remains an emotional issue in Asia. And before the recent execution of mass bomber Timothy McVeigh, emotional debate centered on his refusal to clearly apologize.

Even personal relationships run aground on absent apologies. Forgive us, we don't mean to imply that any readers of this page have ever slipped, but so powerful is our human need for apologies that a tardy apology can require a bonus apology--one for the original wrong and another for being so late regretting it. But, hey, sorry, that's not the newspaper's fault.

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