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Apology: A badge of statesmanship

An apology is not a confession of patent culpability. It is not an admission of guilt, which is determined by an impartial judge or tribunal after the culprit is accorded due process. An apology is the result of one’s soul-searching and assessment of his direct or vicarious participation in the irrefutable facts of a disaster or debacle. It is an act of courage and contrition expressing remorse. For a leader, it is a badge of statesmanship.

The import of an apology has shifted from self-defense and justification when it was first used in the 16th century by Sir Thomas More to its modern usage of implying that a wrong has been committed for which remorse or repentance is candidly offered.

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In personal relations, saying “I’m sorry” assuages wounded feelings and mitigates animosity. In matters of state, a government’s expression of repentance thaws even decades or centuries of wrath and blunder. Examples are Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s acknowledgment in 2003 of Japan’s remorse for the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II, including an apology in 2001 for the enslavement of comfort women; Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology in 1997 for the British government’s neglect of the Irish people during the potato famine of 1845; and the Vatican’s retraction in 1992, through Pope John Paul II, of its condemnation in 1633 of Galileo who rightly said that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe.

A number of American presidents have apologized for mistakes and misdeeds that occurred in their respective administrations:

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  1. John F. Kennedy on April 21, 1961, admitted responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the government…”
  2. Ronald Reagan on March 4, 1987, took responsibility for his administration’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal involving the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for the projected release of US hostages as well as to raise money for the Contras in Nicaragua. He said: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: you take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem… You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly—so you learn. You put things in perspective, you pool your energies together. You change. You go forward.”
  3. Jimmy Carter, 30 years after his incumbency, apologized to the Jewish people for comparing Israel with South Africa on apartheid in his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Although he was not anymore a sitting president, his apology was considered presidential.
  4. George H. W. Bush apologized in 1992 for reneging on his 1988 campaign pledge on “No New Taxes.”
  5. Bill Clinton apologized for his “inappropriate” liaison with Monica Lewinsky and lying about it. He was impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate.
  6. Barack Obama apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for Nato soldiers burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan. He also apologized to Americans who have lost their health insurance coverage despite his repeated assurances that they would retain their plans.

The extreme manifestation of an apology is the self-disembowelment of a courageous samurai nobleman to redress the shame over the defeat or transgression of the warriors under his command. This is reminiscent of the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of humankind.

The Mamasapano debacle neither demands hara-kiri nor crucifixion. An outright resignation may not be called for. What is necessary is for the Commander in Chief, the chief executive no less, to calm and tell his people that he accepts responsibility for the fiasco, that the buck ends in his high office.

The President’s reluctance to apologize may have contributed to the plunge of his popularity and approval ratings to an all-time low. In Kennedy’s case, his ratings soared after his apology for the Bay of Pigs disaster.

There are imperative reasons for the President to make an apology for the Mamasapano massacre:

  1. The Constitution provides: “The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the Philippines.” The phrase “armed forces,” in lowercase, has been construed as not limited to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It includes all government forces which are armed, including the Ph ilippine National Police. The 44 Special Action Force commandos killed treacherously and mercilessly in Mamasapano were members of the PNP under the overall command of the President.
  2. The President was privy to the planning and the execution of the arrest of international terrorist Marwan and others by the SAF troopers.
  3. He broke the PNP chain of command by entrusting the operation to suspended and disgraced PNP chief Alan Purisima while keeping PNP OIC and Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina in the dark.
  4. As Commander in Chief, he failed to assure that the AFP will provide cover and protection to the SAF commandos.
  5. He remained ominously silent for three days after the Mamasapano tragedy, even as he did not attend the arrival rites for the slain police officers.
  6. Both reports of the PNP board of inquiry and the Senate held him responsible.

As the steward of the nation, the President must summon the statesman’s moral compass in him to own up to his command resp onsibility for the death of the 44 heroes of Mamasapano.

An apology which is due will be appreciated by Filipinos, and especially the widows and orphans of SAF 44. A contrite apology is the postmortem balm that will ease the pain and elevate the spirit of those left behind. It may even unite a divided country.

With an uplifting act of contrition, the President can lead the country to move on, while the judicial forum adjudicates the guilt of the perpetrators and Congress makes the proper policy response on whether or not to enact or scuttle the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Edcel C. Lagman is a former representative of the first district of Albay. (This piece was written before President Aquino’s “final say on Mamasapano” at Thursday’s commencement ceremony at the Philippine National Police Academy.—Ed.)

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TAGS: apology, Benigno Aquino III, Mamasapano
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