Richard Reeves

Apology Is No Big Deal

NEW YORK -- Am I the only person in the country who thinks the great apology debate is a joke? If the Chinese want an American apology for the plane-bumping off their shore, then apologize. If President Bush or Secretary of State Powell can't bring himself to do it, I will.

Does our spying on you from afar make you crazy? Sorry about that. But face it, your pilots could use a little better training. Your pilot killed himself; our pilot is a real hero for saving his crew against all odds.

Beyond that, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Anyway, words don't always mean what they used to mean. Some have lost all their meaning, and "apology" is moving in that direction. I get a morbid kick out of the way the word has been diminished and degraded by everyone from mass murderers to corporate villains saying that they feel bad if they made you feel bad by wiping out your family or neighborhood.

"If" is the key word in modern apologies, which turns many of them into mockeries. As in, "I'm sorry if you think I'm evil," rather than, "I am sorry for the evil or foolishness I have done and the people I have harmed." New apologies are often just another way of blaming the victim big-time.

Word, where is thy sting?

In fact, if one views this as a strict constructionist, the Chinese are right in demanding an apology. New dictionaries take weasel-talk into account in their definitions. The Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published last year -- an altogether spectacular volume, I should add -- says this of apology: "An acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense."

Well, right or wrong, the Chinese are obviously offended -- as they were when we stupidly dropped smart bombs on their embassy in Belgrade two years ago. Things like that tend to bother sensitive people, if they survive. We might be offended a bit if Chinese planes were coming around all the time to photograph us or to listen to us flushing the toilet or whatever. The offense, in their minds, seems to be spying itself. So we should apologize and say we'll try not to do it again in that old way -- that we are working on developing new systems so that we can eavesdrop from even farther away.

Before leaving semantics, I would like to mention, offensively, that some of the other language flooding the news as "the crisis" deepens is worse than the apology dodge. The two psychobabble cliches that make my head hurt in this story are these:

"We've got to get this behind us ..."

"We've got to move on ..."

Well, I suppose we do. But there are unpleasant doings that demand a little more serious contemplation than moving on. Hit-and-run drivers move on, trying to get the reality of what they've done behind them.

I assume cooler heads will prevail after a bit, and after some Jesuitically pared apologies that we can all "be comfortable with" -- there's another one -- we can be moving on and getting on with the business of stealing American technology (the Chinese) and buying shoes and CD players at tiny little prices (the Americans).

The one thing that worries me is that our new president may be unduly swayed by polls indicating a majority of Americans support the idea of getting tough with the Chinese. Three out of four of us think that means not sending too much wheat to China, rather than giving up the electronic gems produced by a combination of Yankee and Japanese ingenuity and Chinese cheap labor.

Whatever President Bush does, he is, I'm sure, learning one of the absolute givens of presidential leadership: The best-laid plans and campaigns of politicians and political consultants do not define presidencies. Presidents, at the end of the day, are judged by how they handle two or three or four emergencies, or ideas, or just things that happen, usually unexpectedly, in any four years. Preparation is fine and necessary, but the job is about judgment. What will he do on the big ones?

And this is not a big one. Whatever words are spoken, sincerely or ritually, the Chinese will steal what they can from the plane and the American crew will come home. The big deal is what happens between the United States and China after this game is over.

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