The strength in “sorry”

This is actually a post that I drafted a couple of weeks ago on my lunch hour at work, and I forgot to post it when I got home.  Still think it’s worth thinking about, and I have a follow-up from a story in Today’s Washington Post to go along with it, so here goes…

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Taking a quick departure from the social studies slant as an article in the Washington Post has me thinking about this.  I believe Gandhi’s philosophy on this 100%.  I think it takes a very strong person to forgive—truly forgive others after they have wronged you.  It is far easier to let that offense fester, as it allows you to feel self-justified and superior to someone else.  As my dear-and-wise Aunt Libby would say, those feelings are not good ones, but they are places where we as humans feel “comfortable.”
I will be returning to that subject, as I think pop-culture does a lousy job of making forgiveness into anything but perceived weakness.  But I’d like to talk a little more about the other side of this coin—asking for forgiveness.  In many ways, that is a harder thing to do.  Often we would rather explain when we have offended someone, or done something wrong.  And one of the central tenets of conflict resolution, at least as I’ve learned it, is understanding the perceptions of others, which in essence is getting that explanation that can put something in context.
But an “explanation” will often be nothing more than a mask for a refusal to admit wrongdoing.  I noted in my post about the now-departed Washington Wizards Gilbert Arenas that his explanation for bringing guns into the locker room showed his lack of true remorse and understanding.  This gave Wizards fans and the people of the National Capital area very little room to consider forgiveness.

Rep. King--Gandhi he's not

This brings me to a “two wrongs don’t make a right” article I just read in the Washington Post.  It begins, as it should, with what certainly appears to be the McCarthy-esque witch-hunt that Congressman Peter King of Long Island, new Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is unleashing on Muslim-Americans in this country.  His crusade to root out radical Islam certainly looks to trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens who are already facing more discrimination than any ethnic group in America today.
What stuck me is that King used to be one of the few Republicans who was a real champion of the Muslim-American community, and was given an award by Long Island Muslim leaders for his role championing American intervention on behalf of Kosovo during the Clinton administration.  His flip from friend to foe seems entirely predicated on the events of 9/11, when he lost personal friends to that attack.  It seems that two of the local Muslim leaders after the attack made some rather questionable statements. 
Ghazi Khankan, the local mosque’s interfaith director at the time, asked “Who really benefits from such a horrible tragedy that is blamed on Muslims and Arabs? Definitely Muslims and Arabs do not benefit. It must be the enemy of Muslims and Arabs. An independent investigation must take place.”
Safdar Chadda, a dentist from Pakistan who was then co-president of the mosque, speculated that “the Israeli government would benefit from this tragedy by now branding Palestinians as terrorists and crushing them by force.”
King took that personally, it would seem, saying “At this key moment for our country, the worst attack on us in history, these people who I thought were my friends were talking about Zionists and conspiracies,” he said. “They were trying to look the other way while friends of mine were being murdered.”
My perception is that King has turned that bitterness into a personal vendetta that will be taken out on an entire community.  In that he shows weakness, not strength.  But I believe Khankan is not blameless here.  In the article, he attempts to show his side of the story.  He winces in pain at the mention of the event.  He notes that he was reacting to the mislabeling of the Oklahoma City bombing on Islamic extremesits.  The article notes that he and his colleagues came out to condemn Bin-Laden.  He just wants a chance to sit down and talk to “Pete” about the whole thing.
But, he does not say he’s sorry for what he said.
I am a progressive Jew, and I do believe Israel has a right to exist, so I’ll just get that personal bias out of the way.  But one of the things I have seen on both (and let me repeat, BOTH) sides of the Arab-Israeli debate over the years is a refusal to apologize and to step back and take a look at yourself—another key step for effective conflict resolution.  Often, a half-apology like “just let me explain” is worse than if you said nothing at all, and it is simply a poor substitute for “Those statements were bigoted and wrong and I’m profoundly sorry.”
I remember a similar experience when I was working at Peace Action.  A good friend of mine that I worked with had the last name of Lynch.  We had multiple nicknames for each other, and one of mine that came out was “Mob.”  An African co-worker called me out at a staff retreat for using that term and said it made her feel uncomfortable.  My instinctive reaction was to defend myself, noting that it was Jews as well, not just African Americans who had been lynched in the dark years of American history.  But I realized by the end that what I said was indeed offensive to her, and, you know, what, I said I was sorry.  I didn’t predicate it—I just said I was wrong.  And you know what?  My co-worker forgave me, and we continued to have a very good relationship for my entire time working there.
Sometimes, we say things out of ignorance, spitefulness, bigotry, fear, or rage that do not subscribe to our higher angels.  We must as a society have the strength to forgive, but I think that it is even more important that if our Id gets the best of us, we need to summon up the courage to ask forgiveness.  As an apology can open the door to explanation, where an explanation can close the door to discourse.  You tell me which one is stronger?

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