THE apology of Boston's police chief for a botched operation in Dorchester that caused the death of an innocent retired minister was surely heartfelt. Many black Bostonians were surprised and even moved by the apology, saying it had been too long since any city official expressed such regret for damages done in their community.
And the Japanese were impressed when Ambassador Walter Mondale departed from a prepared text to say of the killing of two Japanese students in Los Angeles, ``I deeply apologize,'' on behalf of the US.
A genuine admission of wrongdoing or regret is part of any needed process of reform. Yet it should be pointed out that our media culture has become so sophisticated that governments, organizations, and even individuals have staffs working around the clock to keep up appearances and to ``manufacture consent,'' as Noam Chomsky puts it. In such a culture, the act of apology is too often a media strategy. One issues an apology not because of felt regret or intent to rectify an error, but because the story made Page 1. The apology is floated to deflect public attention from the error and the often difficult effort to redeem it. The apology can be used to excuse the error, as if to say, ``Leave me alone, I've apologized.''
Tonya Harding apologized for her behavior only after all other approaches failed, leading one to feel this was just another tactic, not regret.
The German government reproached neo-Nazi behavior only after a year of firebombings, and after press stories began to suggest such behavior would harm Germany's image, and thus its business potential.
European officials and some in the United States have recently expressed regret and admitted that not intervening earlier in the Bosnian crisis was a mistake; this was made clear by the salutary effect of the NATO ultimatum on Sarajevo. Given the hopes and expectations the Bosnians had in the West prior to the war, and the genocide they are still enduring, such statements still seem incomplete.
``Apologies are difficult to do because the person apologizing has to admit he or she did some real injury to someone else, and that flies in the face of the way people like to think about themselves,'' offers Harvard psychiatrist Anne Alonzo.
The act of apology, if genuine, is only the first step in a process of reform leading to restored trust. An apology implies accountability. Whether it is the Boston police, or Congress, or a corporation, an apology is worth only what is done next to correct the error.