Back in New York's bad old days, I was mugged in the vestibule of a friend's Lower East Side building.
Two kids, about 13 years old, stepped in behind me. One barred the door. The other covered the intercom with his back. He poked a penknife into my side. "Gimme your money."
"I don't have any money," I replied, trembling. It was true. I pulled my jeans pockets out and offered him a subway token, the only tender I was carrying.
He sneered at it. The boys exchanged glances. A few endless seconds elapsed. The spokesman addressed me: "OK." Then he slid along the wall to the opened door. Stepping outside, he muttered in my direction, "Sorry."
Sorry for yourself, motherfucker, I thought. Now you'll just have to go out and pull another crime.
This memory came back to me when Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid demanded that Bush and Cheney apologize for the CIA leak and "come clean with the American public."
Come clean? No way. Before the 2006 elections, I'm hoping for mountains more dirt -- and the docket lengthening beyond Libby, DeLay, Abramoff, Franklin, Tobin and Safavian, to Frist, Rove, Norton and (I can dream) Cheney and Bush. Apologize? My first reaction: Who's sorry now, motherfuckers?
Still, as it happens, I have been reflecting recently on apology and its complement, forgiveness. October was the Jewish High Holy Days, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Fittingly, the first sins named in the Viddui, or confessional prayer, are slander and gossip.
No surprise, the Republicans are claiming innocence. But in the spirit of the season, let's imagine the words "I'm sorry" emerging from Dick Cheney's smirking lips. What might such an apology accomplish?
To get your name into the Book of Life for the coming year, a Jew has to atone genuinely. God knows when you're bluffing. To keep your office in government, the apology can sometimes be scripted and unfelt. Early speculation had Scooter Libby pleading guilty, taking the fall in order to forestall a trial more damaging to his bosses. That he didn't do so might signal realism in the White House. Polls show a majority of Americans believe Libby's case indicates wider problems of "ethical wrongdoing" within the Administration; a plea probably wouldn't exonerate them. Then again, Reagan apologized for Iran-Contra and rose again. When Rove thinks a mea culpa will work, we'll hear one.
Apologies are useful for less cynical purposes, though, in politics as in personal life. Before bowing at God's feet, Jews spend the month humbling themselves to other people -- resolving quarrels, asking forgiveness even for wrongs perpetrated in ignorance. For believer or atheist, it's an interesting exercise. No matter how lightly delivered, the words change the speaker. An apology is an implicit admission of fallibility. It is also a promise to do better. That moves the recipient toward forgiveness.
Apologies are necessary to get from conflict to peace, argues psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. Benjamin, whose work concerns recognition -- the ways we know ourselves and others, and ourselves through others -- is collaborating with a Palestinian therapist in a project to enable Jews and Palestinians to acknowledge the suffering they have caused each other. In the process, they recognize each other's humanity.
To be meaningful, Benjamin says, this recognition must be public; the more powerful player must "go first." An example: South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission, along with the amnesty granted the criminals of apartheid. Was justice done? Punishment, the Mandela government must have reasoned, temporarily settles scores, but in the long run it may escalate the cycle of vengeance. Was every white cop or bureaucrat named in the witness box truly sorry? It almost doesn't matter. The public acknowledgment of wrong prevented South Africa from drowning in the blood of its past. That gave justice a chance.
The GOP isn't apologizing for the pain it has caused Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, the Iraqis, U.S. soldiers or American democracy. No, they are acting like my muggers: feeling sorry for themselves, and more chutzpahdic, vying for sympathy. From the National Review to Fox News, conservative journalists are blabbing about "the criminalization of politics" -- that's the Democrats' tactic, in case you're confused. "It's a reasonable bet that the fall of 2005 will be remembered as a time when it became clear that a comprehensive strategy of criminalization had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek to govern as conservatives," wrote Bill Novak, the Time columnist who outed Plame.
Money-laundering, perjury, illegal war, torture -- yeah, I'd call that governing as conservatives. As for Novak's poor-us pose, the blogger Hunter expressed my sympathies best: "Oh, boo-goddamn-dumbfucking-hoo."
All right, so I'm not ready to reconcile with the Bush administration. But its irreconcilable differences with the Iraqis make me and all Americans the Iraqis' enemies, like it or not. The Viddui is spoken in the first person plural: Each person's sin is the whole community's sin. I am responsible, if not to atone for my government's wrongdoing, then to acknowledge publicly the suffering it causes and act against it, for peace.