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NOTIONS: Of errors, apologies and redemption

September 25, 2006

Last week, a friend and I stopped by Nordstrom so she could purchase some cosmetics. She found one needed product on the shelf, then asked the clerk if the item she'd asked to be sent from another store had arrived.

The clerk said it had, but that they'd sold it to another customer because my friend hadn't called for it.

My friend said she'd never been notified the product was in.

The clerk repeated that it's store policy to sell unclaimed orders. She didn't apologize or offer to re-order.

"I'll never buy from them again," my friend said to me.

"But they have a great reputation," I said. "And they've always treated you well."

"I don't care," she said. "That's not how you treat loyal customers. I'll buy online."

I left thinking how one mistake, compounded by a lack of apology or amends, can damage even the strongest reputation.

I had errors and consequences on the brain when I read about the pope's faux pas. In a lecture about the rationality of faith in God, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a 14th-century text that said, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

When outrage ensued in the Muslim world, the Vatican tried a soft apology, trotting out a spokesman to say that the pope "deeply regretted" that his speech "sounded offensive to the sensibility of Muslim believers."

A day later, after more outrage ensued, the pope tried again.

In what The New York Times called an "extraordinary personal apology" the pope himself said, "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address ... which were considered offensive.

"These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought," the pope said.

Because the pope apologized only for the reaction to his remarks, and not the remarks themselves, many Muslims said this second apology still didn't go far enough.

As Catholics and Muslims sparred over papal miscues, the United States and Canada served up a heaping helping of crow over a blunder in the war on terror.

According to a Canadian report released last week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police mistakenly told U.S. intelligence officials back in 2002 that a Syrian-born Canadian engineer named Maher Arar was likely an al-Qaida terrorist.

As a result, the report said, the United States nabbed Arar and "very likely" deported him to Syria, where he was imprisoned for 10 months and brutally beaten before finally being released for lack of evidence.

"The American authorities who handled Mr. Arar's case treated Mr. Arar in a most regrettable fashion," said the Canadian justice who wrote the report. "They removed him to Syria against his wishes and in the face of his statements that he would be tortured if sent there. Moreover, they dealt with Canadian officials involved with Mr. Arar's case in a less than forthcoming manner."

When Arar sued the United States, the federal government fought him in court and won. He has appealed. The Canadian government, which he has also sued, has not compensated him, either.

While U.S. officials had no immediate comment on the Canadian report, President Bush did object last week to action by U.S. senators, some from his own party, who insisted that his administration follow the Geneva Convention when imprisoning and questioning suspected terrorists.

In the midst all this, news broke that three prematurely born infants had died because of a medical mistake at Methodist Hospital. Suddenly, my academic contemplation of errors, apologies and redemption took on closer-to-home meaning.

God, my heart aches for the families of those children.

And having lost my own loved one to something similarly preventable, I appreciate the apologies that have been forthcoming, understand the need to know why this happened, and ache with the passion to change procedures and safeguard others from the same fate.

But because I've learned some lessons from my friends at Indianapolis' Carmelite monastery, my heartache extends beyond the obvious victims.

You see, I've come to share the sisters' understanding that the pain of those who err can run as long and deep as those who bear the consequences.

And I've come to appreciate the generosity of the sisters' prayers for all involved in such tragedies-those who make mistakes and those affected by them; those who apologize and those who won't; those who can forgive and those who demand retribution.

So having learned from the sisters, my heart aches not only for the infants' families, but also for the store clerk and the customer, the pope and the Muslim people, the wrongly tortured man and the politicians who won't say they're sorry.

Finally, it aches for the nurses and pharmacists whose humanness cost three infants their lives and for those who'd compound these well-meaning professionals'misery by pillorying them in the public square.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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