As violence escalates in Afghanistan after the accidental destruction of copies of the Quran by American forces, the two governments are left with the frustrating task of trying to defuse the crisis. To President Obama’s credit, he immediately sent a letter of apology to President Karzai with the explanation that the event was an accident but that the matter would be investigated. Some have criticized President Karzai for not reciprocating the apology in the wake of Americans’ deaths at the hands of Afghan troops, which seems understandable, but I’d rather focus on the more inexplicable criticism that President Obama has received for apologizing.
Newt Gingrich said that the apology indicated that there “seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way,” which seems to be rather flawed argument. This isn’t about anything radical Islamists did; it’s about what American forces did, even if accidentally. That is what the apology addresses, and figuring reactions to the event in whether or not to apologize for it seems like putting the cart before the horse. Even from a more pragmatic perspective, it only stands to reason that a mea culpa would take at least some of the steam out of anti-American sentiments, which could save lives in a time of increasing violence. Even if that’s only supposition, what would silence or belligerence gain? Still, aside from that bizarre comment, Gingrich’s statements seem to mostly focus on his expectations for an apology from President Karzai. Senator Rick Santorum’s comments have been much stranger. Apparently, he seems to think that apologizing for a mistake “shows weakness.” Is malice required for contrition? Does that mean the US is off the hook for all the Afghan civilians killed in the chaos of conflict? Sure, people are dead at Americans’ hands, but it was an accident! No hard feelings, right? This kind of thinking ignores how important public opinion is to counterinsurgency in particular and how important responsibility is to being a decent human being in general. Since they are candidates, Mr. Gingrich and Senator Santorum can safely make these sorts of jingoistic pronouncement to their base while never having to worry about writing a letter home to families that their loved ones died because the president wanted to be an arrogant prick.
This all reminds me of an event from imperial Roman history. In 48, Emperor Tiberius appointed Ventidius Cumanus the new procurator of Judaea. The province had grown more unstable in recent years and had churned through a few Roman and Roman-collaborating governors in that relatively short time. Cumanus was tasked with restoring some order to the region, but he began with a blunder when he recruited his auxiliary troops from the pagan towns of the Levant. The consequences became apparent when, among other insensitivites, one of his soldiers destroyed the Torah of a village synagogue. In such a tense climate, this offense was the largest spark to set alight a sudden uproar. Cumanus could not simply abide open riot in his province, so he had to show Roman power to regain control.
Which he did, when he apologized by beheading the offending soldier before his accusers. An uneasy peace resumed for a time.
I’m obviously not proposing beheading anyone who burned a Quran. Rather, I want to emphasize that being apologetic is not the same as being weak. For an empire that flexed its might with almost wild abandon across swaths of three continents at the time, this was an extreme act of contrition, but the most important thing to remember is that it was still insufficient. In the reign of the very next emperor, Rome and Judaea would descend into a brutal war that would leave Jerusalem in ruins. Rome never understood the concerns of the Jews under their rule, and lacking that knowledge in meant that even the most dramatic apologies would still be reactions, attempts to cure symptoms predicated on hamfisted mismanagement rather than simply operating with greater sensitivity to prevent the lethal sickness in the first place.
It is a cautionary tale of the importance of diligently seeking understanding between people and cultures and what bloody results may befall those who do not.