The Closet Moderate: The Banality of Evil

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Banality of Evil

And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot be easily duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes into work every day and has a job to do. Vorbis loved knowing that. A man who knew that, knew everything he needed to know about people.

-Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

If I had to point to one thing about our post-9/11 world that's made me the most uncomfortable, it's the tendency to regard evil as an immutable characteristic of certain people and societies. There's this idea that people perform evil acts because of some malevolent force that resides within them, rather than a slow process of moral compromise. If some sort of truth commission results from the release of these torture memos, I'd be willing to predict that we'll find more or less what we found in the aftermath of WWII and the fall of the USSR. A few people in positions of power were willing to authorize criminal conduct, and beneath them the obedience to power, the assumption of privileged information, and careerist pressures compelled their subordinates to go along with the plan. Ordinary Men by Chris Browning is worth a read if you're interested in this subject.


The true tragedy is how little people have changed in 60 years. Then as now the solution was to obscure the actual nature of what was taking place (both in terms of "black sites" / hidden camps and information management) and minimize the number of people involved. Now we're learning that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month. There are really only a couple of points to be made in response to these revelations:

1. This is why we have laws. As much as we might want to believe that we have an unswerving moral compass, that's not the case. Broadly speaking, you can put otherwise law-abiding people in situations where they will abdicate their own sense of right and wrong. The purpose of the torture memos isn't complicated; they exist solely to remove the burden of moral responsibility from the shoulders of the people carrying out the acts in question. We have laws because we can't trust ourselves to do what's right. That isn't to say that personal responsibility doesn't exist, but rather that there are a substantial number of decent people who will set that responsibility aside if they're placed in a difficult situation. And, once you've crossed that line, it's hard to keep things under control, as the KSM article I linked to above clearly demonstrates (See also, Abu Ghraib).

2. The "if you investigate this issue, you're giving aid and comfort to the terrorists" bluster coming from some parts of the American right is self-serving, morally repugnant trash. It's particularly disgusting in light of the fact that they were only too happy to sell their underlings down the river when the abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced. These are cowardly people who are out to save their own skins (see: Dick Cheney) and nothing more than that. As a result of their decision to condone this sort of conduct, there are many innocent people who have been killed or fundamentally altered by their torture at the hands of the United States. As a final note, torture harms the torturer as well as the victim. You cannot systematically humiliate, violate and brutalize another human being for an extended period of time without sustaining some serious psychological damage yourself:

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said. Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

-The New York Times


1 comment:

Kate Horowitz said...

That these acts were perpetrated is horrific. That these acts were repeated so often that they became commonplace is painful to realize. That these acts were condoned, even suggested, by our government, is monstrous. When these things occur in secret it's the mark of a desperate military. When these things come to light and nobody is held accountable it's just fucking depressing.

How many songs were written about this very thing in the 90s? A lot. When did it cease to be hip to be outraged? Zack de la Rocha, where art thou?