We’ve all heard tragic stories about people being wrongly accused of crime and after years, even decades, of incarceration being released from prison when newly discovered evidence is found or someone else admits to having committed the offense. For the vast majority of us, we do not personally know these victims of our “justice system;” they are so far removed from our every day lives that their misery is little more than fodder for the academic argument that every person deserves a vigorous defense and a scrupulous honoring of their constitutional rights.
But what happens when the same sort of dynamic plays out on a smaller scale, in an arena where no one will end up behind bars but where reputations are damaged and irreparable harm is done?
Recently, I watched a friend go through one of these smaller-scale events. Of course, for my friend, the event was not small in any way. It was all consuming and wildly stressful. Having been accused of something horrendous, my friend was left reeling. Initially, my friend felt confusion having been accused of such an abhorrent act as evidenced by the statement: “How could these people think I did something like this?” After the first shock waves passed, the real offense was felt: “How am I ever going to be able to move forward from this?” My friend’s reputation was imputed; my friend’s self-worth was diminished; and my friend’s perspective of humanity was challenged.
As I listened to these struggles, my efforts were directed to doing whatever I could to let my friend know that “the truth will come out.” At the time, I’m not sure my words were helpful, but in the end they were accurate.
The truth did come out.
In the end, the accusation was deemed worthless and without a rational basis. In effect, my friend was told that a mistake had been made, but since the accusers were not acting maliciously, “let’s go back to how things had been before.”
In the wake of my friend’s vindication, I asked “what are you going to do now?”
My equally shell-shocked and relieved friend didn’t have a quick answer, instead my inquiry was met with a “what would you do?”
I’d do nothing.
Here’s why: the accuser’s lack of diligence before ever making the accusation is not ameliorated by an “I’m sorry.”
Regardless of the amount of relief you might feel for being told “oops, we got that wrong,” it does not change the experience of being wrongly accused in the first place. Those feelings do not evaporate upon the accuser retracting the scurrilous allegation. There is no “do over” when it comes to an accusation. The accused is left with a permanent scar in form of the memory of having been initially regarded as a likely wrong-doer.
No amount of “sorry” fixes that.
No degree of “we spoke too soon” alleviates that.
No measure of “but we didn’t mean to upset you” smooths over the scars of betrayal.
And while I don’t regard myself as a fatalist, there are some things in life that are unforgivable.