Entry from April 2, 2010

In today’s New York Times, Tim Judah of The Economist writes to defend the Serbian apology, such as it is, for the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 and to contradict certain criticisms of same as a cynical ploy:

Such responses, however, fail to account for the deep divisions in the Serbian Parliament and public, between the supporters of the resolution and those who deny any responsibility for the massacre. Indeed, in Serbia as anywhere else, politics is the art of the possible, and that the resolution was proposed at all is an achievement. . . Tuesday’s resolution was hardly unanimous — it passed with just 127 votes in the 250-member Parliament, and many of its opponents stood fast to the nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s. Like many Serbs, they demanded a resolution condemning all crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, especially those against Serbs. The resolution, therefore, is a political landmark. And even if it fails to mention “genocide,” it makes it still harder to insist that the massacre never happened or that the number of victims has been grossly inflated. Yet the Serbian government finds itself caught in a position of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Belgrade had done nothing, Serbs would continue to be accused of not facing up to the past. But now that it has done something, it is being accused of acting out of ulterior motives. That is a shame. This resolution is a lot better than nothing — and a lot more than other countries have offered for heinous crimes committed in their names.

It might be objected that Mr Judah is essentially conceding the point, and that a resolution of apology passed by a razor-thin margin and in response to international pressure (“damned if you do, damned if you don’t”) can hardly be considered an apology at all. At the very least, it seems to me, he can hardly deny that the Serbs were “acting out of ulterior motives,” even if the slim majority of those who voted for the resolution were also sincere, as they may or may not have been.

He might have been better advised to point out that such acknowledgments of collective guilt are always and inevitably cynical in nature. A state or a government cannot feel the agenbite of inwit, as an anonymous and Anglo-Saxonish Middle English author once rendered the Latinate expression “remorse of conscience.” More or less of insincerity and political calculation have to be taken for granted, as they should also be in President Obama’s apologies for American misbehavior (as he sees it) with which he himself had nothing to do. An apology on behalf of somebody else is not an apology at all but a disavowal of the identity — in this case, between the President and his predecessors in office — it pretends to assume with the first person plural. We didn’t do anything; they did it. So, too, by saying “we apologize,” the Serbs were in effect saying “we” is not we anymore but us and them — them being the bad Serbs who killed all those Bosnian Muslims and whose deeds are now to be scratched off the charge sheet of their new and better Serbian successors. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not an apology.

This ought to be borne in mind by those who are now pressuring the Pope to make more fulsome apologies for the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of priestly child-abuse cases. Unless he, personally, has been guilty of protecting abusers from the consequences of their actions — as some, indeed, seem to be alleging — he cannot accomplish anything by apologizing except to give the Church’s fiercest critics another stick to beat her with. The disavowal of wickedness in this case has already been made and lies at the very heart of the Church’s existence. The pressures upon her, both from inside and from outside, to make a special disavowal of this wickedness has become so strong because of the implication that such a disavowal would carry of a fault in the Church itself and not just those of its members and officials who have committed crimes.

An acknowledgment of such a fault on the Church’s part, therefore, would also amount to an acknowledgment of the need for reformation — which is what those who are pressing for it really want. This morning, for example, I heard a radio interview on WTOP in Washington with the Rev. Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, in which the interviewer asked him, “Do you and other priests ever think about your own reformation if you’re so disenchanted?” Father McBrien, to his credit, denied being “disenchanted.” The interviewer must have known what a loaded word “reformation” is to Catholics, but he was only making explicit the assumptions of many of those who are demanding further apologies.

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