When Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word


Going back to graduate school at 53 was scary, for all the reasons you’d expect.? I wondered if my brain was still malleable enough to learn, if I’d be the oldest one in the class, and whether indebting myself up to the gills at this age was categorically insane. (The answers to those questions are yes, no, and probably.) ?But I used a mantra of sorts that had gotten me through my first days in prison (more on that another time.) I said to myself: You are about to meet some people who you will later not be able to imagine not having known. (Pardon the unwieldy syntax, but you get the idea.)

I have never been more right. ?I met my first indispensable new friend at orientation. Dave, (not his real name) was a young veteran who had done several tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.? After being hit by an I.E.D., he’d spent over a year in a hospital, and was now getting his Master’s on the G.I. Bill. ?We were in several creative writing classes together, and he was extremely honest and graphic about the reality of the war in what he wrote. He had found himself in terrible situations that resulted in the death of minors.? No one could fault him for his actions — but they haunted him. It unquestionably had something to do with a love of whiskey weekends that even he characterized as self-medicating.

I thought about Dave a lot watching the harrowingly unremorseful testimony of Michael Dunn on the stand.? On the one hand is my friend, a man who was trained–his words–as a “killing machine.”? He was sent into a war where friend or foe were often not discernable, where peasant boys may be recruited into the Taliban at 14 or 15, where your first duty was always to protect the man next to you.? Everything Dave did was part of a mission carried out under orders. He received medals, not reprimands.? And yet he feels a lot of guilt for the deaths he had a part in–and even for some he didn’t. He even once took up a collection from his unit to reimburse a farmer whose goats were killed in an air strike in Helmand. (The army only pays Afghan civilians for accidental human deaths–and those of camels.)

On the other hand is Michael Dunn. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that his version of events was true. Let’s pretend that he actually believed he saw a gun, that he was genuinely convinced he was in fear for his life, that in his mind, it was kill or be killed. Yet when it turned out that there was never any gun, this revelation seemed to have no impact whatsoever on him. What kind of person would not be devastated that he shot another human being to death for no better reason than an emotional hallucination?? If my friend can lose sleep over the first time he killed a shepherd with a rifle (that was being aimed back at him) how is it that Dunn cannot even muster up condolences for the bereft parents of Jordan Davis, sitting right there in the courtroom?

Would it were that Dunn–and Zimmerman before him– were aberrations. Sadly, they represent the thinking of millions of white gun-owners in this country. One of them commented on my last post, contending this about what Trayvon Martin purchased from the 7/11: “The ‘skittles and ice tea’ (actually Arizona Watermelon drink) are two components of a street drug called Lean or drank. Martin’s own cell phone shows he was familiar with making and using that street drug. A drug known to increase paranoia.”? Yes, because nothing else could explain why a young black man might be nervous about being stalked by a white man at night in a state with as many guns as people.

Remorseophobia is nothing new. ?Remember poor Patsy returning from the neighboring plantation in 12 Years a Slave?? God forbid that she was actually just really borrowing soap because the mistress denied it to her.? No, the only explanation for Master Epps was that she was going to leave him, and so needed to be whipped within an inch of her life.? Did he feel bad about it afterwards? Probably. Could he have ever verbalized it? Never.

Herein lies the paradox of Dunn, of Zimmerman, of Epps.? The guiltier they actually feel–underneath all those layers of decades-long brainwashing–the more they must displace blame upon the true victim. To acknowledge remorse would constitute removal of the first brick of a belief system they have built their life around.? At its core is the commitment to the idea that being born white is an accomplishment, or put more perversely, that not being born black is an indicator of moral superiority. It is fundamental to their very identity. If they don’t have that, they don’t really know who they are.

I used to take unscientific polls in prison — there were a lot of interesting opportunities there for the sociologist in me.? My favorite was asking my fellow inmates two variations on the same question. To the whites I asked: “If you had to choose between waking up tomorrow white and gay, or black and straight, which would you choose?”? To a man the answer was “white and gay.”? I asked the black inmates: “If you had the choice between waking up tomorrow black and gay, or white and straight, which would you choose?” To a man they answered: “White and straight.”?? Draw your conclusions accordingly.

Another poll I took more privately. Every respondent–black or white–had the balls to express regret over things they had done to hurt other human beings.? How ironic that men like Dunn, who use guns as the ultimate street drug to provide a high of power and masculinity, can’t manage the manliest act of them all. Apologizing.

Edited/Published by: SB

Mark Olmsted (@marquismarq) has been blogging for the Huffington Post, and personally as "The Trash Whisperer," since 2006. He recently obtained a M.A. in the Humanities from Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, where he lives and works as a screenwriter and editor.


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