Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Performing Apology

Word has it that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will issue an official apology to families of the victims of Air India Flight 182 at a special ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history (and, until 9/11, the deadliest instance of global aviation terrorism) in Toronto this evening.

It will be interesting to compare the substance of Harper's apology to the one recently issued in parliament by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland--and not just because of Flight 182's explosion off the coast of Ireland. After all, the Harper apology, like Cameron's, is prompted by a damning official report (by retired Justice John Major) placing the blame for the tragedy squarely on the shoulders of the government and its law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the RCMP and CSIS). And yet whereas Cameron manned up in soberly acknowledging the role the British state played in whitewashing the truth regarding the events of January 30, 1972, the text of Harper's apology that has been sent in advance to the press performs its own exculpation, tacking "we're sorry" onto abstract statements about terrorism being "an enemy with a thousand faces" and the "wounds [that] are too deep to be healed even by the remedy of time."

There is a great deal of critical work being done on our current "culture of apology" (including by a very smart PhD student in the English Department at SFU, David Gaertner) and the "rhetoric of sincerity" and/or "deferral of responsibility" that may or may not accompany official state apologies. A contested marker of how we measure the "materiality" of sincerity/responsibility in this context has become financial restitution. With the report by Major in fact making this very recommendation, it will be important to see whether or not Harper, either this evening or in follow-up legislation, puts money where his mouth is.


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