Once when I was about six years old, I tapped this kid Neil on the head with the handle of a toy cowboy gun. Every lad who grew up in America at that time knew the old “knock them out cold with your gun handle” bit reserved for various villains and Nazis you needed to move out of the way. However, instead of just pretending to do it, I actually bonked Neil—ever so lightly–with a toy six-shooter that like other toys of that era was made of metal.
Neil ran off balling his eyes out, which quickly produced his mother, which quickly produced my mother. The posture on our side was that, of course, I never intended to actually hurt Neil. I’d seen the gun bonk move on TV a zillion times and at that moment in our backyard cowboy drama, my ‘hero’ was trying to knock him out. So I apologized to Neil, and made a general promise to never hit anyone in the head with a gun again.
I’m happy to report that I’ve kept that promise, and further that I’ve never been in a situation where I needed that move. But I reach for this story to underscore the fact that simply telling Neil “Sorry I hit you on the head with my gun” was nothing without the promise to never repeat the action.
In a ceremony on the Friday following Thanksgiving, members of America’s oldest Protestant church apologized to Native Americans for the massacre and displacement of their people 400 years ago. The ceremony was held in New York City, so it was fairly high profile. The Collegiate Church, formerly the First Dutch Reform Church, appeared with representatives of the Lenape tribe at the start end of Broadway because back in the day that location was an American Indian trail… something possibly lost on those attending Mary Poppins—The Musical! later that same day.
The Rev. Robert Chase told the Lenape reps: “We consumed your resources, dehumanized your people and disregarded your culture.” If the Church has plans to apologize to every group ever dealt with by the United States in that same general manner, the next decade should find them plenty busy and fully booked. Maybe that’s an easy but wrongheaded joke, or maybe it’s grimly accurate. But any and all revisionist apologies won’t matter if they’re not backed up with a promise to never repeat the behavior.
There may have been some sense of regret immediately following the genocide of Native Americans back in that time, and the use of the term “genocide” still stirs academic debate. But if we agree that European people wanted indigenous people off the land and made war and brought disease that assisted in that end, then to reality check our learning curve in the years following we can look to something like President William McKinley’s comments in 1899 on America’s need to “annex” the Philippines. McKinley justifying that war on the Philippines: “We could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government…” And “…there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” In annexing the Philippines, an estimated one million civilians were killed but accounts of those numbers vary. Oddly enough, we have the same problem today estimating the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the Bush-Cheney invasion there.
The dehumanizing of a people is a component to all warfare. While our children now entertain themselves with movies and video games in which combatants often acknowledge and even honor the ability of their opponents, most of those occur in long ago and far away fantasy realms. In entertainments with more realistic contemporary representations (World War II, apocalyptic future realms), the body count “score” amounts to barely taking inventory of the dead much less acknowledging their courage and wisdom. Forget regard for their culture.
The Collegiate Church’s apology earned a five-paragraph account on page A25 of the November 28th LA Times. An item right above it announcing that a Christmas tree was delivered to the White House by a traditional horse-drawn carriage… got a much bigger headline.
But events such as the church apology matter very much. As this column has observed in other editions of The Mirror, history is becoming very rubbery and we’re not in possession of proof that alternative versions on the Internet and well-meaning corrective feature film stories are improving that situation. It may be argumentative whether the learning days of young school children should be darkened with fuller and more robust accounts better clarifying the relationship between those who came to America and those who already lived here. But by the time we’re adults, we’re obligated to acknowledge that history is often built on homicide and injustice. That injustice includes the impact of war on the families and descendants of those who fight them. Apologies remind us that suffering matters as much or more as paper hats in a pageant or parade. Then they compel us to wonder once more whether we have learned or changed.