379. "Give Wrongdoers a Chance to Repent." Boston Globe (February 9, 2002) p A15.


We are on a new witch-hunt. We are discovering "plagiarists" at the rate of one every two weeks or so. This week it is the turn of Bradford Washburn, the director emeritus of the Boston Science Museum, to be raked over the coals.

Among the most prominent authors recently hunted down are Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ambrose was found to have neglected--are you ready? Ask the children to leave the room!--putting quotation marks around several passages he copied from the books of others, although he did footnote them.

Goodwin similarly strayed.

These offences, not trivial but far from murderous, unleashed a torrent of criticism. The mildest was by Boston University history professor Thomas Glick, who said: "Ambrose is a scholar who has promoted a public image that equates himself with wholesome, patriotic American values, so ultimately his self-promotion and hubris became primary, the accuracy of his research secondary."

Author Roger Rosenblatt described Ambrose's suggestion that "his narrative momentum would have been impeded by the use of quotation marks" that this was "a defense a shoplifter might use when explaining that he would have paid for his stolen items, but that would have broken his stride on the way out of the store."

Still others likened the analogue to a crime. Philip Terzian, associate editor of The Providence Journal, wrote in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "anybody who chooses to purloin another's words does so with full knowledge that stealing is wrong."

I do not wish to make light of plagiarism. The integrity of scholarship requires that sources be acknowledged, but we need some sense of proportion.

If someone has written a shelf-full of books--nine over the last seven years in the case of Ambrose--and he erred in a handful of passages in them, it calls for a slap on the wrist, not public condemnation. There is way too much self-righteousness among reporters who are known to draw on the stories of others without granting credit to their sources.

In a world full of Enrons, maybe these authors' offences should be treated as chicken feed. Yes, it does soil the purity of scholarship but it does not even comes close to endangering it. Above all, the sinners should be allowed to come clean and have their good names restored.

Some years back, I invited nine professors who study religion to a mini-conference. From it I learned that practically all religions--not only the Western ones, but Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism--have institutionalized mechanisms for restoring sinners to full standing. (The conference's deliberations have been published in a book simply called Repentance.)

I found it particularly illuminating that religious repentance entails showing true remorse and doing penance (say fasting), but most people overlook the third element: restructuring one's life. In most religions, before one is fully absolved one has to lead a repentant life. One cannot sin all week long, ask forgiveness on Sunday, and then repeat the cycle the following week. However, if one does follow the straight and narrow, one can be fully restored to good membership in religious communities.

There is nothing like this in civil society. Those who stray cannot find institutionalized ways to work themselves back into society's good graces.

Often TV anchors, professors, athletes, elected officials, and others who offend are fired and remain, in effect, excommunicated. Others have to hoe their own hard and uncertain path to restoration.

Janet Cook was a prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post. One of her reports turned out to be based on a composite. She was fired and, despite repeated expression of remorse and apologies and years spent in the boondocks, has been unable to find a job in the media. The last report said she was working in a minimum wage job at a department store.

Professor Joe Ellis was a highly regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor at Mount Holyoke College, where he taught with great distinction for nearly 30 years. Recently, he was found to have made up a tour of duty in Vietnam. Although he apologized profusely and repeatedly, and nobody has questioned the validity of the extensive research in his highly regarded books, he was suspended for one year without pay, a loss of something like $94,000, and had his endowed chair at least temporarily revoked.

Moreover, representatives of his college and the American Historical Association are competing as to who will condemn him more harshly. From a highly sought-after professor he has become a persona non grata.

Take Senator Gary Hart. When he was campaigning in 1988 for the presidency he was caught having an affair and then tried to cover it up. (He did not lie about it under oath; he only denied it to the press.) The outrage was so intense that he dropped out of the race immediately. After seven years out of the public eye, Hart considered returning to public life by running for the Senate. The reaction of an unforgiving public, as well as of his colleagues, has kept him in limbo up to this day.

We need to find ways for people to make amends, express their remorse, and if they stick to the straight and narrow for, say, seven years, we shall stop bugging them for the misbegotten mistakes in their pasts--at least those of us who never strayed across any line.

Amitai Etzioni is the editor of Repentance and Civic Repentance and teaches at The George Washington University.

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