Sunday, March 8, 2009

William Pfaff on our (possibly) narrow escape from dictatorship

From his column, Why Did So Few Americans Give a Damn?

First on the torture memos:
The American use of torture has been public knowledge or surmise since very early in President Bush’s war on terror. Not many Americans seemed to take note or to protest at the time. There were individuals who protested; the American Civil Liberties Union was on the job, as were Amnesty International and other American nongovernmental organizations and citizens’ groups. They were mostly ignored. Questions were asked in Congress, but little ensued.

This was the amazing thing, really. Very few people among the American public seemed to care—except Fox television executives, who recognize a commercial opportunity when it hits them between the eyes.

Fox began a drama in which each program was devoted to the American president’s torturer doing whatever had to be done to thwart a new threat to the American republic. The hero would apply one of the tortures pronounced legally OK for Americans to use, until the terrorist, gasping or screaming, blurts out where the nuclear bomb has been planted.

This turned out to be one of the most popular programs on the air. It seems that President Bush himself watched. People in the torturing business joked that they got some good ideas from the program.

What if 65 years ago in Germany entertainment radio had broadcast a popular program in which SS and Gestapo officers tortured American OSS officers, or captured American or British airmen, to extract vital information from them at any cost? Adolf Hitler himself might have tuned in. He had decreed that Allied commandos in military uniform should be treated as terrorists rather than as soldiers.
Then on the other memos:
The final thing I will say about this is that many or most of the documents now being issued on how President Bush might ignore the U.S. Constitution had to do with domestic surveillance and the (illegal) use of American military forces against the American public.

That probably would have begun in a small way. “Troublemakers” disappearing here and there. Protest groups rounded up and sent to camps. Possibly a day would have come when some conference of lawyers, or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or Americans for Democratic Action, or the Cato Institute, or some political pressure group like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, did something that seriously annoyed the White House.

If a battalion of military police took over the hall and the participants “disappeared,” it would certainly have made the newspapers, if the newspapers still reported such things. But considering the precedent of the American popular reaction to torture, what else would have happened? Possibly there would have been a popular new television program about the subversive forces at work in America, and how patriots should deal with them.
You'll note that I say "possibly" narrow escape from dictatorship as I remain skeptical that the architecture that has been put in place over the last couple decades will truly be dismantled. I also am concerned about the extent to which American society is truly willing to take on the forces of fascism. The acceptance of the practice of torture in our pop culture artifacts has been mentioned elsewhere (with attempts at satire duly noted). Here's what I said last year in Hollywood, the Ticking Time Bomb, and the Banality of Torture:
Not only has torture become normalized, but the likability of its fictional perpetrators on prime time television has made it seem noble. With very few exceptions, the torturers on prime time shows such as 24 are attractive individuals to whom their primary audience can relate, with the victims portrayed in manners that dehumanize them. Not only are these fictional torturers ones to be admired, but also to be imitated; and if you spend just a bit of time over at the Human Rights First website that I linked to initially, one will find that just as with any other form of media violence, fictitious torture events are stored in memory and - to the extent that they are rehearsed - strengthened to the extent that some of these viewers go on to become real-life torturers in their own right.

So, we're bombarded by scenes of torture committed by likable characters based on an extremely unlikely premise in a manner that appears realistic and reinforcing. On the other hand, the counterpoint - torture as an evil and ineffective practice - gets almost no air time. When I ask myself why more folks haven't spoken out against torture and demand that those responsible in our government for green-lighting the abhorrent practice, and done so in an organized manner, all I have to do is realize just how banal torture has become. Hell, by the time the Abu Ghraib pictures first began surfacing in 2004, Hollywood had already had a good couple years of time in which to normalize it. Those of us struggling for the human rights of those victimized by torture have our work cut out for us in the present cultural Zeitgeist.
More broadly, let's revisit something Edward S. Herman once wrote:
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.
Time to revisit once more the concept of banality of evil.

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