The Way Back : Throughline Our society is saturated in apologies. They're scripted, they're public, and they often feel less than sincere. Political, corporate, celebrity apologies – they can all feel performed. It's not even always clear who they're for. So what purpose do these apologies serve? Because real apologies are not just PR stunts. Not just a way to move on. At their best, they're about acknowledgement and accountability, healing and repair. So how did apology go from a process to a product – and how can we make them work again?

The Way Back

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TOMMY SHAKUR ROSS: (Reading) To the person I harmed...


SHAKUR: (Reading) ...I can only guess how difficult it is for you to hear from me. I imagine to be the last person you want to hear from. I was wrong on so many levels, and I sincerely apologize. I deeply regret and am ashamed of my behavior on that hurtful evening.


This is Tommy "Shakur" Ross. And this apology took him many months to write after many decades of avoiding the question of whether he should write it at all.

SHAKUR: (Reading) And not a day passes without me thinking of the hurt I'm responsible for. I never want to feel this way again nor do I want to cause anyone else to suffer the way you have.


ARABLOUEI: In 1985, Shakur was 19 years old and active in a gang in Los Angeles.

SHAKUR: I started a crime spree that led to me sexually assaulting women. And it culminated into a gang-related murder.

ARABLOUEI: It happened in a liquor store.

SHAKUR: I went outside, went to the car I was in. And when the person came outside the liquor store, I approached him, and I shot him five times. Four days after the murder that I committed, my mother and little brother were killed in retaliation.


ARABLOUEI: For the murder he'd committed, Shakur was arrested, put on trial and convicted. He would spend more than three decades in prison. And for most of that time, he avoided dealing with what he'd done - both the crimes themselves and the reasons he committed them.

SHAKUR: At a young age, I was exposed to childhood traumas that wasn't processed. I had to dig out that hole before I could even address any of the crimes that I committed.

ARABLOUEI: But then in 2012, when he was in his mid-40s, he was transferred to San Quentin State Prison in Northern California. And then he heard about this Restorative Justice program.

SHAKUR: Now, I had heard some things about Restorative Justice, but I wasn't familiar with the concept.


The concept of Restorative Justice is essentially a way for individuals, with the help of a community, to admit their crimes, take responsibility and focus their attention on the people they hurt. The goal of these programs is to bring healing to both the victims and the perpetrators of violence, to try and repair what was broken. But Shakur wasn't so sure if that would work for him.

SHAKUR: 'Cause in my mind, I'm going to have to talk about, you know, the crime I committed, and that was something that I didn't want to do. So I went to the yard and worked out instead. Worked out and I came back, took a shower, and I'm still having this dissonance.

ABDELFATAH: But eventually, he decided to check it out.


SHAKUR: And so I went late.


SHAKUR: And so people were already sitting in circles. And I walked down the center aisle, and I sat outside one of the circles, and one of the inside facilitators invited me into the circle. So I went into the circle, and I sat inside the circle for the first time.


SHAKUR: As soon as I sat in there, they passed me what is called a talking piece.

ABDELFATAH: Initially, Shakur struggled to get any words out, so he passed on talking, listening to others, instead. And that listening made an impression.

SHAKUR: By the time the talking piece made its way back around to me, I was open and honest about the crimes I committed for the first time.


ARABLOUEI: Starting with that meeting, Shakur faced his crimes, their repercussions, why he had done what he did and what it meant. It wasn't a linear process. In fact, it was a pretty messy one. Sometimes he resisted. But ultimately, he stuck with it.


SHAKUR: (Reading) I know an apology can never take away the pain I caused you, but I think it's the least I can do to demonstrate my regret and show how remorseful I feel for harming you.


SHAKUR: (Reading) My hope is that you find peace and solace on your healing journey. With sincerity, Tommy Ross.

TEIAHSHA BANKHEAD: What stops people from causing harm again is something that transforms, that moves within them. And if that movement isn't happening, then it's just surface, right? It's not real.

ABDELFATAH: This is Dr. Teiahsha Bankhead. She's executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. She met Shakur at San Quentin, and she says it's important for people to understand that Restorative Justice isn't just for people who have been involved in crimes. It's something we could all learn from because as you've probably noticed, our society is saturated in apologies.


DONALD TRUMP: I said it. I was wrong, and I apologize.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I'm sorry.

BANKHEAD: I think there is a little bit of, you know, concern that folks are making apology without truly sitting with this is the thing that I've done, and this is the impact that it's had.


LANCE ARMSTRONG: I made my decisions. They are my mistake.

BANKHEAD: I think that public apologies have a significant role in healing.


LOGAN PAUL: I want to apologize to the internet.

BANKHEAD: And when I hear them and I don't have a context and I don't know what other work has been done, I am kind of cynical.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: Dove is apologizing for an advertisement that triggered backlash.

BANKHEAD: My first response is, like, who wrote that?


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: The company says, quote, "we know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize."

BANKHEAD: Do they really feel what they're saying?


TONY HAYWARD: The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened. And I'm deeply sorry that it did.

BANKHEAD: Oh, is this a marketing machine?


DAVID WRIGHT: Pepsi does have regrets, saying it was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Adding, clearly, we missed the mark.

BANKHEAD: It feels often like performance.


ARABLOUEI: If apology is a performance, a public show for a global audience, then it's a disappointing one. Political, corporate, celebrity apologies, they rarely seem sincere. It's not even clear who they're for. Like, who's watching this show?

ABDELFATAH: And what purpose do these apologies serve? Is the trust that was broken being repaired? Is there healing, acknowledgment, accountability? Apologies are not just PR stunts, not just a way to move on. In fact, they're the opposite. Teiahsha says real apologies are so essential that individuals, communities and entire societies have always needed them to properly function. So how do we make them work again?

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, producer Devin Katayama is going to tell us three stories of public apology - from colonial America to the Second World War to the dawn of the internet age - to see how apology went from a process to a product and how we can make it matter again.


KATRINA ONTELLIO: My name's Katrina Ontellio (ph). I'm calling from Toronto, Ontario. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1 - The Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.


EDWIN BATTISTELLA: What should we apologize for, and how should we apologize for it?


BATTISTELLA: Do we admit that we've made a mistake? Is that enough?


BATTISTELLA: Can we have guilt for something that our ancestors did?


BATTISTELLA: People who've been affected by a trauma, a harm, a wrong, even if it's centuries old, it still can linger in their psyche.


DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: It began in Europe in the 14th century - first, with accusations of magic, sorcery, and then the trials, resulting in banishment and, for some of the accused, death. Eventually, centuries later, this dark ritual landed on America's shores.


BATTISTELLA: It's the late 17th century...


BATTISTELLA: ...Colonial America. The Puritans are pretty much settled into New England.

KATAYAMA: Puritans were a sect of Protestant Christianity. They'd come to America to practice their beliefs freely, beliefs that included a deep fear that evil was lurking around every corner.

BATTISTELLA: And it's a time when everyone is worried about the devil.

KATAYAMA: And the devil often came in the form of what was called witchcraft.

BATTISTELLA: My name is Edwin Battistella, and I'm the author of "Sorry About That: The Language Of Public Apology."

KATAYAMA: Edwin says many Puritans believed that witches were the living embodiment of evil and that evil had to be stamped out by any means necessary.

BATTISTELLA: It was also a time when churches were rife with cliques and feuding groups. So those two things came together in, you know, what you could think of as a satanic panic.


KATAYAMA: In Salem, Mass., in the late 1600s, a series of accusations of witchcraft began.

BATTISTELLA: This was the era of Cotton Mather.

KATAYAMA: Cotton Mather played an important role in the chaos surrounding the witch hunts. He was a respected minister from a wealthy New England family and a politically connected one. And like many people, he saw evil everywhere.

BATTISTELLA: He had written a book about how children were sometimes possessed by the devil.

KATAYAMA: The book was called "Memorable Providences, Relating To Witchcraft And Possessions."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Cotton Mather) In her ludicrous fits, one while she would be for flying, and she would be carried hither and thither, though not long from the ground, yet so long as to exceed the ordinary power of nature.

KATAYAMA: It was a book that profiled an actual family, the Goodwins, whose children Mather claimed were afflicted by witches.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Cotton Mather) An invisible chain would be clapped about her, and she, in much pain...

(As Cotton Mather) A variety of tortures now seized upon the girl.

(As Cotton Mather) Nothing but a hellish witchcraft could be the original of these maladies.

KATAYAMA: Cotton Mather's book was pretty popular, and it hit deeply for many people in New England who were already paranoid about witchcraft. And in 1692, Salem would become its epicenter.

BATTISTELLA: In Salem, there were a number of young women who started to have fits and act out in other ways that seemed sort of socially egregious.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Hale) These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents.

BATTISTELLA: A doctor examined them and declared that they were possessed by the devil.

KATAYAMA: The accusations grew and grew.

BATTISTELLA: And the young women started to point to other older women in the community, some of them quite marginalized, and say that they were witches.

KATAYAMA: Within a few weeks, the first three women were being interrogated as possible witches, and within months, more than 200 people, women and men, were accused.

BATTISTELLA: And this is where we get the term witch hunt.

KATAYAMA: To give you a little perspective, the witch hunts became such a big deal that...

BATTISTELLA: The governor of the Massachusetts colony...

KATAYAMA: Governor William Phips.

BATTISTELLA: ...Put together a special court.

KATAYAMA: Called the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which means to hear and determine.

BATTISTELLA: They debated lots of things about what sort of evidence counted. I mean, how would you decide who's a witch? What kind of evidence do you use?

KATAYAMA: In the end, there were several types of evidence used to convict people of witchcraft. They looked for markings on bodies, extracted confessions and called on eyewitnesses.

BATTISTELLA: And there was this thing called spectral evidence...

KATAYAMA: Spectral evidence.

BATTISTELLA: ...Which was, basically, if I dream you're a witch, that counts as evidence because you've entered my dream.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As John Louder) It sprang back and flew over the apple tree, flinging the dust with its feet against my stomach.

KATAYAMA: Spectral evidence was used against Bridget Bishop, the first person executed for witchcraft in Salem in 1692.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Samuel Grey) He felt something come to his mouth or lips, cold.

KATAYAMA: It helped convict a 71-year-old grandmother, too.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Sarah Bibber) The apparition of Rebecca Nurse did most grievously torment me by pinching me and almost choking me several times.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Ann Putnam) I would not yield to her hellish temptations. She threatened to tear my soul out of my body.


KATAYAMA: Not everyone was OK with the use of spectral evidence in these trials. Spectral evidence was controversial. Even Cotton Mather suggested that spectral evidence be used with caution.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Cotton Mather) I must humbly beg you that in the management of the affair in your most worthy hands, you do not lay more stress upon pure specter testimony than it will bear.

KATAYAMA: But fear won. And over the course of just a few months, 19 women and men were hanged. One man was pressed to death with heavy stones. Five died in jail. And two dogs believed to be possessed by the devil were killed.


KATAYAMA: The Salem witch trials went on and on and impacted more and more people until even the governor's own wife was accused. Finally, in October of 1692, he put a stop to the court, and by the following spring, he pardoned many of the accused. But what happened in those crazed months left a long-lasting impact on the community.

BATTISTELLA: It had a particular effect on a man named Samuel Sewall.

KATAYAMA: Samuel Sewall was one of nine men who served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

BATTISTELLA: He was a well-educated Massachusetts resident, had attended Harvard. But like many of the people of the time, he believed in witchcraft. He voted to convict the witches, but soon felt bad about it.

KATAYAMA: The months and years following the trials were dark times for Samuel Sewall.

BATTISTELLA: Two of his daughters had died. His wife had a stillborn child after the witch trials.

KATAYAMA: And he knew how shaky the evidence was against the people he'd convicted.

BATTISTELLA: And I think he believed that he was being punished by God.

KATAYAMA: So Samuel Sewall did something that none of the other judges from the court did. He apologized.


BATTISTELLA: So in 1697...

KATAYAMA: Four years after the witch trials ended.

BATTISTELLA: ...There was a day of fasting and atonement. And on that day, he stood up in the pulpit of a Boston church, and he had the minister read his apology.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family. And being...

BATTISTELLA: In the apology, he says that he desires to take the blame and the shame.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Asking pardon of men and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins.

BATTISTELLA: He's both accepting responsibility and mortifying himself before the community and before God.

KATAYAMA: No other judge had ever publicly apologized for the Salem witch trials. And it cost him professionally.

BATTISTELLA: He was mostly ostracized.

KATAYAMA: His colleagues avoided him. He wrote in his diary about being the only judge not invited to a dinner hosted by a prominent politician. But he continued fasting one day each year for the rest of his life to ask for forgiveness from God.

BATTISTELLA: He was different from many of the people in the community at the time. You know, a lot of people in Salem took the position that, well, this happened because the devil tricked us. And Sewall and some others realized that, well, we really bear a lot of the blame for this. And whatever bad is happening to us now is, you know, being visited on us by God because of our acts.

KATAYAMA: But his apology did have an impact. Eventually, all the jurors from the Court of Oyer and Terminer apologized for the convictions. But some of the accused were never exonerated.


KATAYAMA: About 2 1/2 centuries after the witch trials, in the 1940s, a man named Lee Greenslit from Lincoln, Neb., was digging into his family history. He was somewhat of an amateur genealogist. And as he was poking around, he found something. His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a woman named Ann Pudeator, who was among the final group hanged during the witch trials. He became obsessed with her story. Ann Pudeator was a nurse in her 70s with five children. She was a widow twice. During the witch trials, she was accused by several people of choking, biting, pinching, flying.


KATAYAMA: She was put on trial and executed that same year. But...

BATTISTELLA: She and several others were never mentioned in the exoneration in the early 1700s.

KATAYAMA: So Lee Greenslit uncovers the story in the 1940s. And...

BATTISTELLA: Lee Greenslit began a campaign to have the Massachusetts government exonerate Ann Greenslade Pudeator and several others.

KATAYAMA: In 1945, Lee Greenslit and his lawyer nephew pushed the Massachusetts legislature to introduce a resolution to exonerate Ann Pudeator.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Whereas the General Court of Massachusetts is informed that certain descendants of said Ann Pudeator and said other persons are still distressed.

KATAYAMA: The Greenslits weren't looking for any money. They didn't want a lawsuit. They just wanted to clear Ann Pudeator's name. Given all the time that had passed, it seemed like a simple request. But there were some people who questioned what a resolution like this would mean for the state of Massachusetts.

BATTISTELLA: How can the state of Massachusetts now apologize for something the colony of Massachusetts did? The people in Massachusetts were products of their time. And they were following the laws of the time, so they shouldn't be judged too harshly. And if we go back and sort of second-guess what they did with additional apologies, it belittles the work of Samuel Sewall and others who apologized in the moment.

KATAYAMA: The resolution brought up all kinds of questions. What does it mean to apologize for something that happened centuries ago? What's our obligation to address and repair harm done by society in the past?

BATTISTELLA: Do later generations bear guilt for previous generations? And what does it fix if I apologize to you for something my ancestors did? And that comes up again and again with national and state apologies.

KATAYAMA: The resolution to exonerate Ann Pudeator and others failed in 1945. It failed again in 1946, and again in 1953. It finally passed in 1957 and was seen as a formal apology for the Salem witch trials. But it wouldn't be until 2022 that all the victims were exonerated.


KATAYAMA: The story of the Salem witch trials and the centuries-long struggle to come to terms with what happened is one of many similar stories. Think about reparations for the descendants of enslaved people in the United States or the movement to return lands stolen from Indigenous people in the Americas. In cases like these, apologies aren't just about words. They can redefine history, redefine truth. So how do we as a society apologize and take responsibility for our past mistakes? Coming up, one man tries to carry a whole country's burden.


JEFF: Hi. This is Jeff (ph) in Kawasaki, Japan, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 2 - never apologize.


KATAYAMA: It's December 7, 1970, in Warsaw, Poland. A middle-aged man flanked by several other men approaches a memorial.

ASHRAF RUSHDY: Willy Brandt, as chancellor of Germany and therefore representing the German people, goes to Poland.

KATAYAMA: He's wearing a long black overcoat. His silver hair is slicked back, and as he walks up to the site commemorating those killed by the Nazi regime at the Warsaw Ghetto, cameras are clicking all around him.


KATAYAMA: As he stands in front of the memorial, a wreath of flowers in front of him, no one knows what's going to happen next.

RUSHDY: And then he fell to his knees.

KATAYAMA: This is Wesleyan University professor Ashraf Rushdy. He's written several books on the history of apology.

RUSHDY: And he stayed looking off at the memorial in the distance.

BATTISTELLA: And just sort of silently bowed his head.

KATAYAMA: The moment was somber, quiet, and Willy Brandt looked genuinely full of sorrow as he knelt.

RUSHDY: And many of the observers said he really looked like a human being who was fighting back tears for the whole time he was there.

KATAYAMA: So after what probably felt like an eternity, Brandt...


RUSHDY: And walked away.


RUSHDY: What happened in World War II kind of, you know, beggared the imagination.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

RUSHDY: It seemed unimaginable...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

RUSHDY: ...Not just the war, but the concentration camps, the death camps, the use of the atomic bomb.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).


JOANNE DRU: (As Olivia Dandridge) Mr. Cohill, haven't you anything better to do than to ride around in that little red sash, making yourself obnoxious?

KATAYAMA: This is from the 1949 film "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." It stars Joanne Dru and John Wayne. The movie is pretty standard post-World War II fare, nothing remarkable. But there is this moment early in the film where John Wayne says an iconic line.


JOHN WAYNE: (As Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles) Never apologize, mister. It's a sign of weakness.

BATTISTELLA: Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness. I rented the movie and watched it about four or five times. I sort of wrote down each time the idea of never apologizing shows up.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) I'm sorry, Captain.

WAYNE: (As Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles) Don't apologize. It's a sign of weakness.

BATTISTELLA: It shows up about four or five times.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) I'm sorry, sir.

WAYNE: (As Captain Brittles) Oh, shut up.

BATTISTELLA: It's actually a catchphrase of his with his subordinates.


JOHN AGAR: (As Lieutenant Flint Cohill) The old man says don't ever apologize. It's a sign of weakness.

BATTISTELLA: So much so that they make fun of him for using it.


WAYNE: (As Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles) You know never to apologize. It's a sign of weakness.

DRU: (As Olivia Dandrige) Yes, but this was your last...

KATAYAMA: This was just four years after World War II, a war which the U.S. ended by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. But here's John Wayne's character, on screen, saying over and over again, don't be weak.

RUSHDY: Apology is seen as a shaming ritual. If you are apologizing, you are - it's like the dog putting the tail between its legs. You are saying, I am embarrassed. I'm ashamed of what we've done.

KATAYAMA: And there was shame for many people around the world. And it wasn't going to be easy to never apologize, to hope that it all just went away. The images of bodies piled up in concentration camps, burned children in Nagasaki - the acts of World War II were going to haunt the world for generations.

BATTISTELLA: There was a sense that the world and those nations needed to be held accountable and they needed to come to grips with their own complicitness (ph) and guilt.

RUSHDY: So what it required was for us to think on a different level of scale. How do you recover from that? It was a different way of thinking about reparation. Things had to happen to offset what had transpired.

BATTISTELLA: But the nations themselves were conflicted about this. There was really a policy of national amnesia.

KATAYAMA: Which was why Willy Brandt's Kniefall in Poland was so remarkable.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking German).

KATAYAMA: This is from German television coverage of the trip.

RUSHDY: He described it as an apology. He said, I did what people do when they don't have any words. Part of an apology strategy is to recognize the insufficiency of words.

KATAYAMA: It was part of his administration's larger effort to help Germany make amends with neighboring countries who the Nazi regime had devastated during the war. For him, apologizing was a show of strength - a necessity.


RUSHDY: What's important about this is that only Willy Brandt could have done this because Willy Brandt's history is disconnected from the history of Germany from 1933 to 1945 - the years of the rise of the Nazis.

KATAYAMA: Willy Brandt escaped Germany in those years and moved to Norway.

RUSHDY: He established a political organization to resist German aggression. After Norway fell to German forces, he left and went to Sweden. At times he worked as a spy against Germany and then didn't return to Germany until after the war.

KATAYAMA: So he could say, look, I fought against the Nazis. I tried to stop the horrible things they were doing.

RUSHDY: And that, I think, is important because he could say, I am sorry for what happened. What he's saying - I am representing this nation, and my stance here, kneeling before you in a humble stance, says our nation is sorry for what it has done. It would be difficult to imagine that - anyone with a different political history who was more implicated being able to do that with that kind of resonance or power.

BATTISTELLA: I think what Brandt intended was for it to really let the German nation feel that they could begin to move on and talk about this in a different way, which is what an apology should do.

KATAYAMA: But not everyone in Germany agreed with what became known as Willy Brandt's Kniefall. It was a country still dealing with the trauma and guilt of what it had done just 25 years earlier.

BATTISTELLA: It sort of broke the logjam on German apologies and German contrition. On the one hand, you have people saying, you know, how can we move forward if this is always on our backs? And on the other hand, you have this sense that, you know, we have an obligation to future generations to make sure this is never repeated.

KATAYAMA: In that same year, 1970, the major German magazine Der Spiegel ran a poll about Willy Brandt's apology.

RUSHDY: The question was, do you approve or not? And the results were something like 41% approved and 48% disapproved.


RUSHDY: So it does raise this, you know, intriguing question about, what does a political apology mean when there are other potential statements of dissent or support behind it?

KATAYAMA: In other words, can an apology like Willy Brandt's be effective if the people he's apologizing for don't necessarily all agree with it?

RUSHDY: I think what's notable is that because he didn't say anything that required a response, there was no call for forgiveness.

KATAYAMA: No direct confrontation. No direct accountability for the nation. No assessment of what happened.

RUSHDY: When forgiveness happens, it's - in private relationships, it's sometimes couched in a way that makes, you know, it more comfortable for everybody. And in public events, it should not be that case. In public events, it's important to have an accurate history - an accounting of who had the power and how that power was exercised. We need truth and reconciliation, but the truth is the basis for reconciliation.

KATAYAMA: So even though Willy Brandt's act was thoughtful and intentional and backed up by governmental action, it didn't necessarily resonate with the entire German people because there wasn't a shared sense of what happened in World War II.

RUSHDY: Without a shared sense of history, it's difficult to imagine any of those nations moving forward.

BATTISTELLA: To apologize to a country, you really need to think about, who are you apologizing to? Is it enough to go on television and say, you know, the U.S. apologizes for X, or do you need to do it like a personal apology and, you know, speak directly to those individuals? The best national apologies bring together the people who've been affected or the descendants of the people who've been affected.

KATAYAMA: And in that distance between action, words and true understanding, cynicism towards public apology can flourish. Willy Brandt's apology helped make it normal for a nation to apologize for its collective sins. But in the process, it inadvertently also made the public apology into something almost transactional.

BATTISTELLA: I think it really turns the apology into a commodity. When you or I think of a commodity, we talk about apology in terms of I owe you an apology, you owe me an apology. It's a sort of coin. In the case of the - Willy Brandt's apology - and such an important apology that it sort of set the stage for people to think, well, why doesn't this nation apologize for this?


KATAYAMA: In the decades after Willy Brandt fell to his knees in Warsaw, the public apology became more and more commonplace. More countries were stepping up to acknowledge the atrocities they'd committed in the past. But in the process, something might have been lost.


KATAYAMA: Coming up, how public apologies lost their meaning and how we might get them back.

DENISE FISHER: Hi, this is Denise Fisher (ph) from Germany. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Part 3 - The Guilted Age.


KATAYAMA: In the years after Willy Brandt's Kniefall in Poland, the public apology started becoming more common. And it also became kind of a catchall. Change your 99-year-old soda recipe? Apologize.


DONALD KEOUGH: We're really sorry for any discontent that we may have caused for almost three months.

KATAYAMA: Someone laces your medicine with cyanide and kills people? Apologize.


JAMES BURKE: On behalf of the entire Johnson & Johnson organization, I have expressed our heartfelt sympathy.

KATAYAMA: Spill 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska? Apologize.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Exxon says it is sorry for the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The company has taken out ads in major newspapers today apologizing for the spill and saying Exxon is doing its best to clean it up.


RUSHDY: People have called it the age of apology. People have called it the cult of apology. In my own book, I call it a guilted age.

KATAYAMA: As this era of apology moved through the '80s and '90s, it became a tool to bring companies back from the brink of social death. And this is something that we still see. We've all heard or seen carefully crafted words of regret. Forgive me for my sins. I still want to sell you some stuff.

RUSHDY: You just see these things happen more frequently.

KATAYAMA: But it would be an apology from a political figure for an ethical failing that would turbocharge the guilted age - a personal apology that was very, very public.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Potentially damaging cloud is hanging over the White House this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Now, at issue is whether the intern had a sexual relationship with the president.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky appeared today before a federal grand jury.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: President Clinton has agreed to give videotaped testimony in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.


RUSHDY: In the summer of 1998, President Bill Clinton...


CLINTON: Good evening.

RUSHDY: ...Arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time...


CLINTON: This afternoon, in this room, from this chair, I testified before the office of independent counsel and the grand jury.

RUSHDY: ...Apologized for his role in what's come to be called the Monica Lewinsky affair.


CLINTON: Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate.

KATAYAMA: President Clinton was 49 years old at the time he started having a sexual relationship with the 22-year-old White House intern. And initially, he denied it. But eventually, he was forced to testify in front of a grand jury, and he apologized to the public.

RUSHDY: He did it at first on August 17, 1998...

KATAYAMA: It was 542 words.

RUSHDY: ...And it was a televised statement in which he expressed remorse.


CLINTON: I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.

RUSHDY: But it was also a statement that tried very much to establish the difference between his public personality and his private life.


CLINTON: It's nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives.

RUSHDY: He wanted to say, I regret doing this, but this is also my life, and the public shouldn't have access to it.

KATAYAMA: In a way, President Clinton was using his apology as a defense.

RUSHDY: And so that was the first apology he made.


RUSHDY: Editorials and commentary and pundits immediately said this is an insufficient apology. Polls were also conducted that showed a decline in Clinton's popularity.

KATAYAMA: If President Clinton wanted the public's forgiveness, he didn't have it. Many people didn't even believe what they had heard was an apology. And soon Republicans would start the push for impeachment. President Clinton had to try again.

RUSHDY: A month later, President Clinton had his monthly prayer breakfast...


CLINTON: Welcome to the White House.

RUSHDY: ...With a group of pastors and religious leaders.


CLINTON: I was up rather late last night thinking about and praying about what I ought to say today.

RUSHDY: He then issued what we can think of as the second edition of his apology.


CLINTON: It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine.

RUSHDY: And he said, quote...


CLINTON: I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified, I was not contrite enough.

RUSHDY: ...Unquote.

This is a significant thing - someone who issues an apology, reads the responses to the apology, then recognizes that the sentiment did not come through. And then he offered what he called...


CLINTON: Genuine repentance.

RUSHDY: He's using new language - repentance. He's saying, I wasn't contrite enough before. I'm contrite now. And he said the following.


CLINTON: I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.

KATAYAMA: President Clinton dressed his apology in religious language. So he went from using a legal defense and claiming that his personal life was nobody's business to the language of shame and repentance and atonement. But even though he asked for God's forgiveness, a la Judge Samuel Sewall's apology for the witch trials, Clinton's audience in the late '90s wasn't God - it was the American public.

RUSHDY: The pundits saw this and celebrated. The editorials said, yes, that's what we're looking for. This is someone who's truly sorry, who's not excusing himself but apologizing for what he did.

KATAYAMA: And it worked. Even though the Republican-controlled Congress impeached him, he remained in power. His poll numbers even went up. And by the time he left office in 2001, President Clinton was one of the most popular presidents in recent history.

RUSHDY: And the importance, I think, is that we see that the public has a role to play in defining these scripts.


RUSHDY: In one way, he created this model in which celebrities, they could go out in public and say, I have done this, and I was wrong to do it. So he provided a quasi-script.

KATAYAMA: Since President Clinton apologized for the sex scandal in the late '90s, political apologies have shot up. In fact, a website that tracks these apologies since around World War II says the vast majority of them have happened in the last 20 years.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement. I apologize we ever pulled out of the agreement.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The prime minister of the Netherlands has issued an apology.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart and basically apologizing.

JACINDA ARDERN: I stand on behalf of the New Zealand government to offer a formal and unreserved apology.

KATAYAMA: And it's not just politicians or celebrities.


WILL SMITH: Chris, I apologize to you.

KATAYAMA: It's also people like Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police on a Black man after they got into an argument over her unleashed dog in New York's Central Park.


AMY COOPER: Words are just words, and I can't undo what I did, but I'd like to sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone.

KATAYAMA: It feels like public apologies are in another transitional moment. And it feels like the stakes are really high, especially when those apologies go viral, because we still don't have a clear understanding yet about how they're helping us heal and whether they're enough to address what the apology is really about.

RUSHDY: You know, when someone would say, I am really sorry, I abused the power I had and I shouldn't have, that's an unimportant statement. It requires more, and it requires dismantling of that structure.

KATAYAMA: Cynicism and apathy are the emotions of the day because ultimately, if people don't believe an apology is coming from somebody who's accepted responsibility and is genuinely wanting to make things right, then what are we left with?

SHAKUR: Hurt people hurt people, right? But also, healed people heal people.


SHAKUR: I'm in the process now of - where it's about healing others.

KATAYAMA: Maybe the key to making apologies matter again lives in the stories of people like Tommy "Shakur" Ross, who spent decades in prison before taking responsibility for his crimes and writing apology letters to the people he hurt - letters that may never be read.

Do you know if anybody received your letters?

SHAKUR: To my knowledge, they haven't. Many people who are harmed don't even know that this process exists.

KATAYAMA: A lot of people don't know that restorative justice exists because it's often done in invisible spaces, out of the public eye. And it's a process that Shakur says was profoundly difficult, but equally healing.

SHAKUR: It takes courage to be vulnerable. Oftentimes, people look at vulnerability as a weakness, but vulnerability is a strength. Yeah, sure, in the past I've done a lot of horrible things that I totally regret, and they will be with me for the rest of my life. But it feels good to be on the other side of that and to be receiving some positive karma.

KATAYAMA: Shakur was released on parole in 2022 after serving more than 36 years in prison for his crimes. He says the purpose of the apologies he's made aren't just to say the words, but to demonstrate it.

SHAKUR: To be out of prison, to be thriving, to be working, to be a tax payer, be a voter, to be doing things as a progressive and respectable citizen in society.

BANKHEAD: I would say with the rise of internet culture and social media, there's a way that we have fewer sacred and safe spaces to work it all out.

KATAYAMA: This is Dr. Teiahsha Bankhead again. She reminds us that restorative justice is a difficult, often messy process that requires people to be honest and vulnerable. It can't work in the quick, transactional way we often interact on social media. And she argues that if people can genuinely engage, then restorative justice has the potential to help not just individuals like Shakur, but institutions and entire societies.

BANKHEAD: We're at a place right now of kind of an explosion of restorative justice practice.

KATAYAMA: She says all kinds of people and groups reach out to her organization, like mayors...

BANKHEAD: Philanthropies...

KATAYAMA: ...Celebrities...

BANKHEAD: ...Police departments...

KATAYAMA: ...Politicians...

BANKHEAD: We've had cities.

KATAYAMA: And Teiahsha isn't the only person doing this kind of work. She calls restorative justice a worldview. Her organization is part of a larger international movement that wants to change the way we think about apology, forgiveness, redemption and repair.

BANKHEAD: A hurt for a hurt doesn't result in health or healing. There is, you know, this African proverb that the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down just to feel its warmth. And so there are these ways that if we don't engage in this deep and messy and relational practice, that our children will not feel embraced, and they will burn this whole thing down. This is truly the only way that we as a society can be delivered from the pain, the suffering, the harm and the polarization that we are experiencing. So I believe that restorative justice has the capacity to heal our communities, to heal our people, that we can heal ourselves. And it's only through this that we can heal the world.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...







KATAYAMA: Devin Katayama.


ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Joel Kushner, Bowie Alexander, Dustin Brumley, Megan Vandahey, Yordanos Tesfazion, Bryan Rasmussen, Adrian Palenchar and Luther Pearson for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Also, thanks to Micah Ratner, Johannes Doerge, Taylor Ash, Richard Francis, Nick Smith, Brett Neely and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And a special thank you and farewell to Alex Drewenskus, who makes not only this episode but many THROUGHLINE episodes over the last year for us. Alex, you've been such an amazing engineer and teammate, and we really loved working with you. We wish you the best of luck. Also, music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: Additional music was composed and performed by Hania Rani.

ABDELFATAH: And one more thing. We're working on an upcoming episode about the ways motherhood is and isn't compensated, and we want to hear from you. What does motherhood cost? Call us and share your thoughts and experiences at 872-588-8805. And as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


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