Commentary: Admitting mistakes and apologizing doesn't diminish America

Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bob Ray Sanders is a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. MCT

We cannot change the past, and many in this country would argue that we should never apologize for it.

No matter how atrocious the act or acts done in the name of the United States of America, there are those who suggest that it weakens us as a nation to admit a wrongdoing or an error in judgment.

They have criticized President Barack Obama for being an apologist to the rest of the world and, in doing so, casting a negative image on "the greatest country on Earth."

Well, this month the president apologized to a Central American country for what our nation did to some of its citizens some 60 years ago.

He was right to do so, as offering this nation's regrets was the least we could do for such ghastly deeds.

"Shocking," "tragic" and "reprehensible" -- the words White House press secretary Robert Gibbs used -- don't begin to describe my feelings about the experiments conducted by this country on prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948.

It was reported this month that Wellesley College medical historian Susan Reverby discovered the long-hidden National Institute of Health-sanctioned study of syphilis experiments on Guatemalans.

And what makes this research project even more appalling is, unlike the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, the Guatemalans were deliberately infected with the disease -- first with the use of prostitutes and then with direct inoculations.

To its credit, the current administration wasted no time in offering apologies after learning of the experiments.

This month Obama made a call to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, while Gibbs publicly declared, "It's tragic, and the U.S. by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement saying, "We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health."

It took the United States 25 years to apologize after revelations in 1972 of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which 399, mostly poor black sharecroppers, were "observed" over a 40-year period by not being treated for their infections by the U.S. Public Health Service. The idea was to watch them, see how the disease affected them and wait for them to die in order to conduct postmortems.

In 1997, with five of the eight remaining survivors of the Tuskegee project (and family members of others) present, President Bill Clinton offered the nation's apology:

"The United States government did something that was wrong -- deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens.

"To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry."

That was a touching moment; a teachable moment.

Admitting mistakes and apologizing for them does not lessen a country's greatness or diminish its achievements. On the contrary, such actions add to its character.

Through the history of the United States, there have been times when some people here were treated like animals -- in some cases, less than animals.

There have been periods when government (local, state and national) closed its eyes to injustice, was a willing participant in the denial of human rights and, yes, many times tried to hide its wrongdoing by burying reports like the horrendous syphilis experiments.

As a citizen, and one who has been on the receiving end of government's discrimination, I am more proud of my country when it is capable of facing its past, learning from it, making amends for it and vowing to continue addressing the issues of its inherent inequality.

I was taught as a child that it never hurts to say, "I'm sorry."

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