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Sorry States

PARIS – National repentance is in the news again, as it has been with remarkable frequency in recent years. In 2008, Australia’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to his country’s Aborigines, while Queen Elizabeth II offered a moving gesture of contrition in Ireland a few months ago. And now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a recent visit to the Caucasus, reiterated his advice to the Turks to “repent” for the massacres of Armenians committed by the decaying Ottoman regime in 1915.

Of course, Sarkozy would be surprised to be told that the same logic should lead to a declaration of repentance by the French state to Algeria, not to mention to the Algerian soldiers who fought under the French banner, the so-called “Harkis,” many of whom were abandoned to a terrible fate when France left the country in a hurry. As for those who managed to survive and cross the Mediterranean, France dumped them in segregated, under-served ghettos.

For many political leaders and analysts, repentance is a misplaced and excessive form of sensitivity. History is tough, they say. Besides, where does one begin apologizing – or, rather, end? Should one apologize for the Crusades, for the destruction of German cities by the armies of King Louis the XIV in the seventeenth century, not to mention the armies of Napoleon? Wouldn’t the result simply be to turn history into a perpetual cycle of contrition?

Yet, in a globalized age, which demands transparency and posits interdependence, repentance can be considered an instrument of good governance. A country that has lifted the carpet of myth and indifference under which the negative aspects of its past were swept is better able to manage itself and accommodate others.