Apologies: How to Say You’re Sorry for an Obscenity: Erik von Brunn’s Apology for His Father’s Attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

–Richard E. Vatz

I have always been fascinated by the never-ending rhetorical debate over what makes for a sincere apology. Apologies take many forms, from an ingenuous appeal for forgiveness (i.e. the apologizing principal really regrets what he/she or someone related or in his or her charge did), to a strategic attempt to ameliorate consequences (e.g., such as you might hear at a sentencing hearing), to a meeting of sociological expectations of your constituents (such as political apologies during a race for office), to a patently insincere apology to communicate one’s contempt for the victim of your bad behavior (e.g., David Letterman’s apology wherein he said that when he joked that a Sarah Palin daughter “was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez,” he (Letterman) was referring not to Gov. Palin’s 14 year-old daughter, but to her 18 year-old daughter, “who was knocked up.”

[Update: Monday evening, June 14: the Associated Press quotes Letterman as offering a sincere apology on tonight’s show, saying “It was a coarse joke, a bad joke…[b]ut I never thought it was (about) anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show, I checked to make sure, in fact, that she is of legal age, 18…[t]he joke, really, in and of itself, can’t be defended.” Now, this belatedly may appear to many to be a heartfelt apology, probably defusing the situation for the talk show host, but as a second apology is likely to have been motivated by growing national pressure and thus should not be assumed to be sincere.]

Each of these types of apologies has a long history, but let us focus on a recent one of the first order, the honorable statement of contrition by the son of the 88 year-old perpetrator of the attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and killing of revered guard Stephen T. Johns, Mr. Erik von Brunn.

Listen to Mr. von Brunn’s words of remorse in a statement to ABC News, reported by The Washington Post’s Bill Turque: “I cannot express enough how deeply sorry I am it was Mr. Johns, and not my father who lost their life yesterday [June 10, 2009]…[i]t was unjustified and unfair that he died, and while my condolences could never begin to offer appeasement, they, along with my remorse is all I have to give…[f]or the extremists who believe my father is a hero: it is imperative you understand what he did was an act of cowardice…[h]e should not be remembered as a brave man or a hero, but a coward unable to come to grips with the fact he threw his and his families lives away for an ideology that fostered sadness and anguish.”

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Do you see any conflictedness in his condemnation of his father’s despicable act? Do you hear any subtle tone or equivocation that would imply that his remorse was diluted by other motives, such as denial or forgivingness toward the sinister murderer, his father?

Neither do I.

There is little in self-justificatory rhetoric that sickens me more than the disingenuous apology. It adds undeserved stress to the victim, and often considerable undeserved stress. All of the list above of insincere and strategic apologies deserve whatever punishment that aggravation dictates, because they all aggravate the circumstances of the victims of the affront.

I represent no one but those who agree with me, but as just one citizen let me express my appreciation for the clear, unqualified apology of Mr. Erik von Brunn for his father’s unforgivable act.

You have spoken meaningfully and honestly, sir, and it matters.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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