Apology
Photo: Thinkstock
In one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War, a small girl is running naked down the road with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off and her body scorched by napalm. The man who ordered the raid on this child's village in June 1972 was 24-year-old helicopter pilot and operations officer John Plummer. The day after the raid he saw the photo in the military newspaper The Stars and Stripes and was devastated. Twenty-four years later Plummer told an Associated Press reporter, "It just knocked me to my knees. And that was when I knew I could never talk about this." The guilt over the bombing raid had become a lonely torment.

The girl in the photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, survived 17 operations, eventually relocated to Toronto, and became an occasional goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at a Veterans Day observance in Washington, D.C., not far from his home.

Kim's speech included this: "If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present...." Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note—"I am that man"—and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her. "She just opened her arms to me," Plummer recounted. "I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say was, 'I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry.' "

"It's all right," Kim responded. "I forgive. I forgive." Five months later, still connected by their peculiar history, the two were shown in an AP wire photo, their heads touching, almost cheek to cheek, Plummer's arm around her, both smiling with an incongruous delight, as if he had never ordered the raid that left her body scarred and in permanent pain and as if he did not live with recurrent nightmares.

The story of the pilot and the girl moves us because the need to be forgiven lives so strongly in us, and it is rare that we see it played out in such direct and dramatic form. And yet in our everyday lives we are touched by forgiveness and haunted by its lack in a myriad of ways. Can we be forgiven our insensitivity? Our cruelties? Our betrayals? Can we be forgiven the things in us that feel so terrible we dare not speak them? How others feel about us contributes to how we define ourselves to ourselves, and often it is through other people, their tolerance, their perspective, their generosity, that we are able to forgive what has seemed unpardonable in us before.