“I’m sorry for what I did,” avowed a captured American apologizing to a journalist in a camp in northern Syria. “I now realize that I made a wrong decision,” he confessed. Was he hoping for some form of clemency? Was he hoping to be returned to the United States or to be defended by an American lawyer wherever he is tried because of his citizenship? Whatever the reasons for the apology - I assume we will never really know beyond his declaration – the case of apologetic, captured “jihadists” poses an ethical question.
What does it mean to say “I’m sorry.”? Saying one is sorry is praised and recommended in all successful relationships. “True love is what brings us to say 'I'm Sorry,'” suggests the website goodmenproject. John Denver’s song “I’m Sorry,” a lament about his lies to his former girlfriend, was a very successful country single.
On a political level, saying “I’m sorry” gets complicated. Government officials rarely admit their mistakes. When Robert McNamara said; “We were wrong, very wrong,” about the United States’ war in Vietnam, it was seen as an act of contrition by an individual, but not a national admission of guilt. However, when in 1999 President Clinton said about American interference in Guatemala, “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong,” it was more than a personal admission. A leader’s recognition of wrongful acts by his country could lead to suits for reparations domestically and internationally, although this has rarely happened.
When Cornelia Sommaruga, then president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), apologized for the inactivity of the Red Cross during the Second World War, it caused a major controversy. He was the first ICRC president to publicly recognise that its failure to speak out during the Holocaust was a ‘moral defeat.” Several years later, the current ICRC President, Peter Maurer, admitted that the Red Cross failed as a humanitarian organisation during World War II because it “lost its moral compass.”
To return to the jihadists: Can we really accept an apology from someone who left their country to join Daech? Whether or not the person was directly involved in violence, the mere act of joining that organization must be considered a serious mistake, if not a criminal one. The ISIS website clearly shows their disdain for the West, for us, and there can be no question about its use of violence. How could anyone be so naïve as to think that Daech was anything but what they discovered?
Sometimes we do welcome people who have been members of insulated groups, properly indoctrinated, and who then realize their mistakes. Granted the group may not be as violent as Daech. And if violence is part of an organized group, like the Weather Underground bomb explosion in Greenwich Village that killed three people, we accept that they must be punished for their crimes. And we can also accept their integration into society after serving prison time. But we certainly do not forgive someone like Charles Manson, whose request for parole has been refused several times.
What about people who leave their country to join Daech and then apologize? The issue of losing citizenship if they have another citizenship is a technical point. I am interested in how to react to their apology.
To forgive for sins is fundamental to many religions. After all, aren’t we all sinners in one way or another? Forgiveness is as human as sinning, or at least as human as making mistakes. To err and to be forgiven go together. At least up to a point. When sentencing those found guilty, don’t judges take into consideration the degree to which the guilty person is repentant?
So the question with the repentant jihadists is a matter of degrees. How violent were they? How sincere is their apology? For some, merely leaving their country and joining Daech places them beyond forgiveness. “Take away their passports and forget they were ever citizens with those rights,” is often said. “They have rejected our society, so we should reject them,” goes the argument.
Is it really that simple? If we accept that to err is human, as is to forgive, what kind of forgiveness can we allow? Kathy Boudin was a member of the radical Weather Underground, considered domestic terrorists in the 60’s and 70’s. She was not only making bombs when the Greenwich Village townhouse blew up, she was also convicted of murder during a robbery. Since her release from prison in 2003, she was named adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Social Work and has been a scholar-in residence at NYU Law School. Her story has been the subject of two plays. While her appointment at Columbia was controversial, it was noted that “she has atoned for her crime and successfully rehabilitated herself.”
What does it mean to say, “I’m sorry”? This is more than a legal or political question. It is an ethical one. And like many ethical choices, there is no simple answer. But it is an important question to ask for those hearing the apology. For it is the listener who must decide how to react, and this listener was truly saddened by the American’s apology.