Friday, February 1, 2008

Saying sorry to indigenous Australians

The antipodean continent chosen by the British authorities as an excellent abode for social outcasts had been inhabited for many millennia by a vast community of Aborigines whose tribal culture and pantheistic religion were exclusively oral.

These innocent and relatively peaceful natives were no match for the European invaders—convicts and settlers—who simply snatched the plains, rivers and mountains away from the indigenous Australians, using violence, if need be. Later, the colonial authorities stole, not only the natives' land, but their children too, in view of an absurd eugenic principle according to which the only survival strategy for this people would consist of educating them in a European context and inter-breeding them with white individuals.

Today, it would appear that the prime minister of Australia is at last about to apologize officially to the so-called "stolen generations" of indigenous Australians, victims of cruel acts perpetrated in the past by white Australians. It's far from easy, of course, to decide upon the most effective and morally just way of making such a formal apology... and this explains, no doubt, why it has taken such a long time for this event to become a reality. We current Australians tend to say, or at least think, that our ancestors, not us, were responsible for these crimes against the Aborigines. So, why should we say we're sorry for acts that we didn't actually commit, personally?

Although the respective situations and tragedies are profoundly different, Australia's forthcoming apology to the Aborigines reminds me of the French government's complex relationship with Jewish citizens and residents of France during the terrible Nazi period. Justifications of a similar kind were advanced for decades to postpone the fateful act that would consist of saying explicitly: The nation, today, is sorry for all that happened!

Whatever we might say concerning the errors and foibles of former president Jacques Chirac, we must give him credit for being largely responsible for this official act of contrition, on 16 July 1995, at the former location of the notorious sporting stadium (the so-called winter cycling track of Paris) where Jews arrested by French police were assembled before being deported to concentration camps. In a fortnight, in the Antipodes, Kevin Rudd will be performing a solemn act of the same order.

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