Assessing the Apology

It’s a shame more of our best columnists don’t blog. Nowadays, print columns seem to be in something of a time warp. Exhibit #9202 is the arrival this morning of two columns on Richard Clarke’s apology for 9/11, which seems oh so last week in Internet time, by two of the very best.

William F. Buckley, Jr. is in peak form, which is saying something:

The response given to Richard Clarke’s apology for 9/11 is instructive. We assume he was sincere in tendering it, and, manifestly, the family members of the victims who heard him were sincere in their full-throated appreciation. Granting all that, we need to analyze the event for its implications.

One apologizes for one’s own misdeeds. One can apologize, also, for the misdeeds of a group of which one is a member. Indeed, for a civilization of which one is one part. But in order to be credible, one has to have standing. The Pope can apologize for past episodes of Christian anti-Semitism, but a lonely priest, or parishioner, doing so, brings on attention not to medieval church practices, but rather to himself. The psychological term is grandiosity: a self-exaltation that subordinates the major question. If John Applejack rises, stretches open his hands, and apologizes for the sinfulness of time, one’s attention turns not to the sinfulness of time, but to John Applejack.


Charles Krauthammer is a bit less charitable.

Indeed, one has to admire it — the most cynical and brilliantly delivered apology in recent memory: Richard Clarke using the nationally televised Sept. 11 commission hearings to address the families of the victims. “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you.”

Many were moved. I was not. For two reasons. First, the climactic confession “I failed you” — the one that packed the emotional punch — was entirely disingenuous. Clarke did the mea culpa and then spent the next 21/2 hours of testimony — as he did on every talk show known to man and in the 300 pages of his book — demonstrating how everyone else except him had failed. And they failed because the stubborn, ignorant, ideologically blinkered, poll-driven knaves and fools he had been heroically fighting against within the government would not listen to him.

Message: They failed you.

Second, by blaming the government for the deaths of their loved ones, Clarke deftly endorsed the grotesque moral inversion by which those who died on Sept. 11 are victims of . . . George Bush. This is about as morally obscene as the implication (made by, among others, the irrepressible Howard Dean) that those who died in the Madrid bombings were also victims of George Bush.

This is false. They were all victims of al Qaeda and al Qaeda alone.

Bill Clinton did not apologize for Oklahoma City. Ronald Reagan did not apologize for the Beirut bombing. FDR did not apologize for Pearl Harbor. George W. Bush owes no apology. If an apology is owed, it is owed to the entire country and not just the families, and it is owed by the murderers who planned and carried out Sept. 11.

A rather obvious point that seems to be missed.

The most telling remark Clarke made in the entire hearing was one that did not make the cover of Newsweek.

Former senator Slade Gorton: “Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25th of 2001 . . . had all been adopted say on January 26th, year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?”

Clarke: “No.”

Thus, doing everything demanded by the most hawkish, most prescient, most brilliant, most heroic, most swaggering anti-terrorism chief in American history — i.e. Clarke, in his own mind — would not have prevented Sept. 11. Why, then, should the administration apologize?


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    You know, the more you guys drill on this, the worse and worse it looks. You should have just ignored it.

    But like a red cape in front of a bull. . .

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, if the polling numbers are any indication, Clarke’s allegations aren’t working–indeed, Bush’s comparative numbers vis-a-vis Kerry on terrorism are up. Still, this is an interesting issue, having dominated the media as it has.

  3. amused says:

    I’m not sure if I should believe this guy or not, especially when he says 9/11 couldn’t be prevented.