By , February 26, 2012

What’s an apology? Today, I was baffled by Rick Santorum’s comments this morning on Meet the Press:

“I don’t think the president should apologize for something that was clearly inadvertent.  What you should lay out is the president saying this was inadvertent.  This was a mistake and there was no deliberate act, there was no meant to disrespect.  This was something that, that occurred that, that should not have occurred, but it was an accident and leave it at that.  I think you highlight it when you, when you apologize for it.  You, you make it sound like it was something that you should apologize for.  And there is not — there was no act that needed an apology.  It was an inadvertent act and it should be left at that and I think the response has — needs to be apologized for by, by Karzai and the Afghan people of, of attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and, and overreacting to this, to this inadvertent mistake.  That, that is, that is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did.” (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46518366/ns/meet_the_press-transcripts/t/meet-press-transcript-february/)

What exactly does Santorum mean by “apologize” here, and when does he think an “apology” is appropriate? Here, he’s acknowledged that the incident (the burning of religious books, including copies of the Koran,  by U. S. military personnel in Afghanistan) was a “mistake” which “should not have occurred” — but he condemns the apology from the Commander in Chief.

Oddly, Santorum then turns around that argues that the president of Afghanistan (Mr. Karzai) should apologize because some Afghan civilians and military personnel were “overreacting” (including the unprovoked murder of two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan).

My question: what, exactly, is an “apology,” and when is it appropriate, in Mr. Santorum’s mind? Mr. Santorum appears to believe that an apology isn’t appropriate for an “inadvertent act” or “accident,” in the absence of intentional disrespect. If so, what exactly is an “inadvertent act,” and what is “disrespect?”

Nobody argues here that the soldiers who burned the books didn’t intend to do so; instead, the U.S. military claims that the soldiers did not realize that religious books, including copies of the Koran, were included.  They didn’t realize that burning these particular books, in these particular circumstances, would be considered disrespectful by many Afghan people.  (But I think most people would agree that “burning books” is an act which requires special care, especially if they’re not your own books, and that reasonable people would have sought verification that these particular books should be destroyed, and that burning was an appropriate method of disposal.)

But everyone agrees that it was a mistake, which should not have happened. To me, that calls for an apology: “We are sorry that this act occurred, and that our people made this mistake.” It probably calls for more — such as a ban on U.S. military personnel destroying books or other items without making reasonable efforts to confirm that the items have no cultural or religious significance.

Mr. Santorum is absolutely, unquestionably wrong, when he claims that President Obama should not have apologized. Indeed, Mr. Santorum’s own words could be construed by many as an apology, except for his assertion that they’re not.

Of course, an apology is meaningless without an admission of error by the person making the apology; telling someone that you’re sorry about how they feel, or that they suffered as a result of an event, is merely an expression of sympathy, not an apology.  At a minimum, an apology requires an admission that a specific wrongful act occurred. An apology, by itself, doesn’t require acknowledgement of “intent to harm” or “intentional disrespect.” Nor does an apology require a promise (or expression of intent) not to repeat the act, though an apology which isn’t accompanied by such an expression or action might not be perceived as sincere.

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