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Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
Published on Thursday, April 5, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
United States Citizens Don't Care to Apologize to China - Or Anyone
by Martin Kettle in Washington
 
In pressing for a full-scale American apology for this week's spy plane incident, as he did for the second time yesterday, Chinese president Jiang Zemin may be making a rod for his own back: he is dealing with a nation that doesn't say sorry.

Part of this, of course, is about being the world's only superpower, about being the guy with the gun. In an American world, apologizing is what the other fellow does, not what you do to the other fellow. But there is far more to it than that.

In the world's most litigious society, the refusal to admit liability is culturally ingrained. The American car insurance document that I am obliged to keep in my wallet says it all, and in large letters too: "If you have an accident - Notify the police immediately - Do not admit fault - Do not discuss the accident with anyone except [the insurance company] and the police".

It's a fair bet that the pilot and crew of the EP-3 spy plane carried a similar message in their heads, if not actually in their wallets. Whether or not it was they, or the Chinese fighter planes, who actually caused Sunday's incident, the US crew will have been pre-programmed to stay shtoom .

A colleague of mine on the Washington Post was driving across the prairie a few years ago, radio blasting and not a care in the world, when out of nowhere he was involved in a collision with what was probably the only other vehicle for a dozen miles around. He got out of the car to confront a carload of angry Kansans.

"I'm terribly sorry," he began. Out there on the prairie, it was the right thing to say. Kansan anger turned instantly to satisfied smiles. But it was a costly admission. Back in Washington, the Post's lawyers were none too pleased. They read my friend the riot act and told him that he must never - but never - say sorry again.

As the armed forces of the only nation which claims the right to patrol every corner of the globe in the interests of its own security, it is inevitable that the American military will find itself in more unexpected collisions and accidents than any other. But America's military instinctively refuses to admit responsibility when things go wrong. Whether they are slicing through a ski lift cable in the Italian Alps, or getting into a tangle with the Chinese air force, the thought of quickly uttering the soft words that might drive away wrath never comes naturally to the Pentagon.

Instead, the US military - which in some other contexts can be remarkably open, honest and informative, especially by British standards - tends to go into instant denial. If America is forced to respond, the apology generally comes too little too late, if it comes at all.

In incident after incident (the sinking of the Japanese Ehime Maru fishing boat off Hawaii by the USS Greenville nuclear sub was a classic recent example), America's own interests have been badly served by such reflex denials of responsibility. The Ehime Maru, after all, was a merchant ship belonging to an allied nation to which the Bush administration intends to pay more attention. But America got it wrong at first.

This is clearly more than just carelessness. America is a society which is consumed with the need to achieve emotional "closure" over its own domestic crises. The inability to see such incidents as others see them, and thus to allow others to achieve similar closure, has become a national attitude of mind.

George Bush seems very unlikely to change this approach. He came to power with an election pledge which he calls "tort reform" which is specifically designed to absolve large corporations from liability in class action legal suits. Bush's backers in industries such as tobacco, guns, oil and automobiles want him to get the complainants off their backs in the name of that same American freedom in whose name the EP-3 listens in to Chinese phone conversations.

It is not just foreign governments who find it difficult to get apologies. In recent years, black American organizations have been mounting an ever stronger campaign for some form of official atonement for the worst domestic stain on the history of the land of the free.

On a visit to Sierra Leone two years ago, Bill Clinton apologized to African nations for America's role in the slave trade. Back home, however, the campaign for an official apology still gets nowhere. Plans for a national memorial to the victims of slavery seem to be stalled, while plans for a monument to Ronald Reagan are accelerating into the fast lane.

"Never explain. Never apologize," said the British admiral Jacky Fisher at the end of the first world war. The words could be engraved over the entrance to the Pentagon today. It's an attitude which seems to come with the job of being the world's top nation. Jiang Zemin shouldn't hold his breath.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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