Sins of omission can be just as terrible as sins of commission - and there's no better proof of that than the U.S. Senate's repeated failures in the 19th and 20th centuries to pass an anti-lynching law.
Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,700 people - the vast majority black Americans - were lynched or murdered with no serious effort to bring justice to the killers at any level of government. This disgraceful failure accounts for an ugly stain on the nation's history - not only for the U.S. Senate, but for the U.S. democratic system of government.
Seven presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison in 1891, called for making lynchings a federal offense, and three times the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to that effect. But each time the proposed law was quashed in the upper chamber - filibustered to death, sad to say, by powerful Southern senators.
This is why it was entirely appropriate for two senators from the South - Virginia's George Allen, a Republican, and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, a Democrat - to spearhead the bipartisan resolution, in which the Senate formally apologized for not enacting an anti-lynching law. "The apology is long overdue," Allen rightly noted.
If the Senate had acted years ago, he added, it would have sent an important signal that the government does not condone lynching, which is basically lawless mob brutality that's not only directed at the victims, but also terror directed at people or groups sympathetic to the victims.
The apology also could have the practical effect of improving the U.S. image abroad at a time when the Bush administration is trying to promote freedom and democracy around the world.
Additionally, the nation's justice system is moving to make civil-rights amends by reopening a couple of decades-old Mississippi lynching cases - the FBI's renewed probe of the 1955 beating and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; and the trial getting under way this week of Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, for the 1964 slayings of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
It's ironic that the ugly history of the filibuster - which not only blocked anti-lynching laws for many years but civil-rights legislation as well - and for which Congress is apologizing, recently has been defended as a bulwark of the Constitution that protects minority rights against a bullying and overbearing majority.
A filibuster protecting minority rights? Tell that to the thousands of lynching victims.