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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1133-1134

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Book Review

When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice

When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice (Roy L. Brooks ed., New York Univ. Press 1999).

As Roy Brooks posits in the first essay of this impressive volume, we are presently living in the "age of apology," as efforts have been undertaken in a number of countries to "come to terms" with past human injustice. And as Brooks describes the sum of these measures:

What is happening is more complex than "contrition chic," or the canonization of sentimentality. The apologies offered today can be described as "a [End Page 1133] matrix of guilt and mourning, atonement and national revival." Remorse improves the national spirit and health. It raises the moral threshold of a society.1

Apologies are multidimensional, and one of the great strengths of this book is its ability to so refiect. The book is divided into eight sections: Nazi persecution; Japanese "comfort women;" the internment of Japanese-Americans; Native Americans; Slavery; Jim Crow; and South Africa. Each section consists of essays that deal with various aspects of the apology (or non-apology) being examined. What the reader gets in each section is a useful combination of history, law, narratives from victims, and policy. There is a great deal to learn from these essays.

If I were to fault the book, I would do so on two scores. The first is coverage. Notwithstanding that this has become the "age of apology," and despite the fact that the book already weighs in eighty-five essays and more than 500 pages, the book unnecessarily limits itself to what I might term the "usual suspects," and fully half of the sections deal with the United States. Thus, the book would have been strengthened by looking at more apologies than it does, whether it would be the apologies (or near apologies) to aboriginal people in Canada and Australia, the British government's occasional (and weak) attempts to address various events and aspects of its colonial rule, the Pope's dramatic apologies for the sins of the Church--or perhaps the manner in which many (arguably most) countries still refuse to "deal" with their own pasts.

A second complaint is that there might have been a greater effort to provide some larger meaning to the apology phenomenon. Each section of this book is certainly thorough enough. However, what could also have been addressed more fully is some refiection on why the past apparently bothers us in a way that previous generations were apparently not bothered. In essence, what does all this apologizing mean? Obviously, Brooks and many of the contributors think that there has been a fundamental change in the way that we think and act--as evidenced by the search for the proper means of addressing our previous wrongs--but the volume would have been that much better if there had been more of an attempt at providing some broader meanings rather than to focus on the specific.

These, however, are minor points. When Sorry Isn't Enough not only provides a neat blend of scholarship, but it also focuses on a topic that is (or should be) of vital importance to human rights.


Mark Gibney
University of North Carolina--Asheville





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