Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Banality of Evil Revisited: The Normalization of the "War on Terror"

Interesting post by Richard over at American Leftist:
2007 will soon come to a close. We are over 6 years removed from 9/11, and over 4 and 1/2 years removed from the invasion of Iraq. 9/11 initiated the "War on Terror", the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the seizure of purported terror suspects around the world, their rendition to other countries where they can be more readily subjected to torture and their indefinite incarceration at facilities around the world under dehumanizing conditions. Hundreds of thousands, if not over a million people have died as these measures have been arbitrarily implemented.

After participating in numerous protests against the anticipated invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, and then, engaging in civil disobedience after it was launched, I expressed my great fear to my friends: the occupation would become normalized, that is to say, that it would be incorporated into the background mosaic of our lives by the government and the media. The public would come to see it as an immutable part of their existence, akin to paying taxes and sitting in cramped seats on airplanes. In retrospect, I should have expanded the focus of my concern to the "war on terror" in its entirety.

Despite everything that has happenend, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, the forced feeding of hunger striking detainees at Gitmo and airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan that kill large numbers of civilians, there is no reason to believe there is any political prospect of ending the "war on terror". Just the notion of curtailing its excesses is out of the question. It has been incorporated into the background noise of our lives. The surge in Iraq, we are assured, is a success, even Harry Reid, in his own circumspect way, says so.

How did this happen? One is tempted to say that it was inevitable, given the postmodern state of contemporary politics and social life, the alienation of people from any belief that they can organize as a class, a coalition or an amorphous political movement to insist upon radical change, and perhaps, it was. Even so, we should not hesitate to indict those responsible for it.

Edward S. Herman sez:
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. The late Herman Kahn spent a lifetime making nuclear war palatable (On Thermonuclear War, Thinking About the Unthinkable), and this strangelovian phoney got very good press. ~

In an excellent article entitled "Normalizing the unthinkable," in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of March 1984, Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was "normalized" for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: "[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed." Peattie focused on the parallel between routinization in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the "unthinkable" is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. "Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone."

Peattie noted that the head of MlT's main military research lab in the 1960s argued that "their concern was development, not use, of technology." Just as in the death camps, in weapons labs and production facilities, resources are allocated on the basis of effective participation in the larger system, workers derive support from interactions with others in the mutual effort, and complicity is obscured by the routineness of the work, interdependence, and distance from the results.

Peattie also pointed out how, given the unparalleled disaster that would follow nuclear war, "resort is made to rendering the system playfully, via models and games." There is also a vocabulary developed to help render the unthinkable palatable: "incidents," "vulnerability indexes," "weapons impacts," and "resource availability." She doesn't mention it, but our old friend "collateral damage," used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, came out of the nukespeak tradition.
The concept of "banality of evil" of course comes from Hannah Arendt's writings - originally appearing in her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bethania Assy notes in an essay on Arendt's term "banality of evil" that the key appears to be a lack of thinking, a noticeable shallowness - not just at an individual level but at a societal level. The sorts of evils that we can attribute to the Nazi Holocaust, to the bombings and sanctions against Iraq, the torture and extraordinary renditions, etc. are ones in which are treated with a sort of shallowness. They are normal, merely part of the background. One doesn't think much about them, but rather just accepts them and moves on to the next reality TV show. A point that shows up in Assy's summary as well as in Arendt's writings, is the potential that in reflectively thinking about what is going on, one might then question one's support for the status quo:
How, then, does the faculty of thinking work in order to avoid evil? First of all, according to Arendt, the moral and ethic standards based on habits and customs have shown that they can just be changed by a new set of rules of behavior dictated by the current society.In Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship, Arendt emphasizes: "It was as though morality, at the very moment of its collapse within an old, highly civilized nation, stood revealed in its original meaning, as a set of mores, of customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with no more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of a whole people." (28) Thenceforth, Arendt claims the bridge between morality and the faculty of thinking. In this same article quoted above she asks how is was possible that few persons resisted the moral collapse and had not adhered to the regime, despite any coercion. Arendt herself answers: "The answer to the ...question is relatively simple. The nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience but, ... because their conscience did not function in this, as were, automatic way, ... they asked themselves to what an extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be charged for the better, but because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves." (29) (emphasis added)

Arendt clearly attributes to the faculty of thinking the presupposition for this kind of judging extremely necessary in times of moral collapse, that is to say, "when the chips are down." Arendt argues: "The presupposition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but merely the habit of living together explicitly with oneself, that is, of being engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking." (30) (emphasis added)

Another clip of Arendt (also from Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship) courtesy of Arthur Silber:
In our context, all that matters is the insight that no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others. What you have here is the notion of an equality which accounts for a "leader" who is never more than primus inter pares, the first among his peers. Those who seem to obey him actually support him and his enterprise; without such "obedience" he would be helpless, whereas in the nursery or under conditions of slavery -- the two spheres in which the notion of obedience made sense and from which it was then transposed into political matters -- it is the child or the slave who becomes helpless if he refuses to "cooperate." Even in a strictly bureaucratic organization, with its fixed hierarchical order, it would make much more sense to look upon the functioning of the "cogs" and wheels in terms of overall support for a common enterprise than in our usual terms of obedience to superiors. If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution, as becomes glaringly obvious in the case of revolutionaries and rebels who disobey because they have withdrawn this tacit consent.

In these terms, the nonparticipators in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of "responsibility" where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act "irresponsibly" and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance -- for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience -- which are being discovered in our century. The reason, however, that we can hold these new criminals, who never committed a crime out of their own initiative, nevertheless responsible for what they did is that there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. The only domain where the word could possibly apply to adults who are not slaves is the domain of religion, in which people say that they obey the word or the command of God because the relationship between God and man can rightly be seen in terms similar to the relation between adult and child.

Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, "Why did you obey?" but "Why did you support?" This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere "words" have over the minds of men who, first of all, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word "obedience" from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.
One can also find similar lines of thinking in Gene Sharp's three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Yes, the powers that be have a great deal at their disposal - a well-funded propaganda machine, a vast military, most of the instruments of a police state already in place, and global economic hegemony (for the time being). For many of us, it seems to have been that way from the cradle to the grave. What we need to remind ourselves is that no matter how brutal the dictatorship, no matter how powerful it may appear on the surface, its legitimacy ultimately rests on perception. I as one individual cannot "bring down the system." Nor does, as Richard points out, is there much of an organized opposition at the present. I can withdraw my support, if as I reflect, I come to realize that I simply cannot sleep at night by continued support of the status quo. Gene Sharp of course lays out numerous tools at one's disposal if one wishes to nonviolently resist evil - many of which are so easy that just about anyone could do them. Even a quiet withdrawal of support is better than continued support of a broken system. For some that might mean refusal to pay taxes. For others it may mean refusal to participate in electoral politics. Still others might refuse to participate in the consumerism that is so rampant - and which merely distracts us from what is going on. Whatever action it may be, what one is saying in deeds, if not in words is that the current system is not legitimate, that there is nothing inherent in the system to make it legit to begin with. Or to quote Auguste Comte:
"every social power [is] constituted by a corresponding assent...of various individual wills, resolved to concur in a common action, of which this power is the first organ, and then the regulator. Thus authority is derived from concurrence, and not concurrence from authority...so that no great power can arise otherwise than from the strongly prevalent disposition of the society in which it exists..."
Don't expect some powerful person to come charging in at the last minute to save you from yourselves. You had that power all along. That, my friends, is the dirty little secret your ruling class would rather you not know.

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