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Op-eds

Apologies to the dead border on meaningless

  • Geoff
In the current era, it has become trendy to apologise for almost anything, which makes the person doing it feel good while not necessarily helping the injured party, who might even be long dead.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Oct 10, 2019

After a very long time, the British government this month expressed “regret” that apparently, soon after explorer James Cook and his crew on the HMS Endeavour landed 250 years ago in the country that was to become New Zealand, they murdered some Maoris. This action was documented in the diary of Joseph Banks, the expedition’s botanist.

Cook’s example is minuscule in scale compared with other historical atrocities. Now, entire indigenous people and modern nations are demanding apologies and recompense for what was done hundreds of years ago. In some cases, it becomes ridiculous.

America has apologised to black Americans whose forebears were brought as slaves to what became the United States. The Atlantic slave trade began in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved Africans to the British colony of Virginia. Slavery officially ended in 1865 after the American Civil War, when Confederate soldiers of the southern United States wanting to preserve slavery fought the Union from the North, resulting in 620 000 deaths. The Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

American politicians demanded that an apology for slavery and Jim Crow be made because the government apologised for the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, and for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs immediately devastated their targets, and over the next two to four months, they killed between 90 000 and 146 000 people in Hiroshima, and between 39 000 and 80 000 in Nagasaki. Roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

An extreme example of national guilt is that elicited by the actions of Germany in World War II. Not all Germans regret that entire communities of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were obliterated as a result of Nazi policy, amounting to 6 million, and alarmingly, neo-Nazism is on the rise again. As a government, however, Germany has made an official apology, and has made a serious attempt to compensate Jews and eradicate anti-Semitism.

On a more politically complex level in South Africa, black people warrant an apology from whites for European colonialism and apartheid. But given the society’s diverse nature, from whom exactly would such an apology come? And who among blacks would have the authority to receive it? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 tried to lay the ground for reconciliation by allowing perpetrators to tell injured parties the truth about what they had done, but it only partially succeeded. Many of the true devils of apartheid, such as the people responsible for the deaths of anti-apartheid activists like Ahmed Timol, Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, and David Webster, for instance, slipped through loopholes.

In Southern Africa, a numerically small example of injury against a people is the San, the earliest inhabitants of the region. The San’s demise occurred over the past few hundred years from the impact of colonialism from the 17th century onward, when they were enslaved and sometimes exterminated. But apologising to them would be an empty act to no-one’s benefit.

One could go through the history of the globe and find examples of people taking over and destroying others. Insincere moral grandstanding about this, however, is dangerous, and too easy. Cynics might say that complex human society is inherently prone to these sort of troubles, and that humans are not actually programmed to live at peace with each other.

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