The Nature of Evil

Edmund Burke famously said “For evil to flourish it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Burke was given to the pithy, memorable statements and was also a wise and extremely well-informed thinker. But today even though we might quote Burke there is little doubt in the minds of growing numbers of people that evil, as such, is a fiction. Indeed, in our relativistic age, “good” and “evil” are nothing more than words we use to describe things we either approve of or condemn. Today it’s all about US and how we feel. Students are asked not what they think about their reading (if they have done any) but how they feel. And they are asked to write “reaction papers,” rather than thought papers. And outside, in the “real” world, ask any Tom, Dick, or Sally and they will tell you it’s all a “matter of opinion.”

But one who took seriously the notion of evil was Hannah Arendt who, in 1963, was asked to write a series of articles for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Granted, the “final solution” was close enough in the memories of many people to make such a series of articles timely and pertinent. In fact, they were later collected in a book, published by Penguin under the title Eichmann  in In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil.  Note, please, the sub-title. Arendt’s point was that folks like Eichmann are just like us. He was nothing more, and nothing less, than a bureaucrat, a tiny little man who simply did what he was told to do. In her words:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

The thing about the Holocaust that is so deeply disturbing, along with the fact that many deny it ever happened, is the strange matter-of-fact manner in which the “Final Solution” was carried out.  Hannah Arendt was appalled by the indifference with which people like Eichmann went about the business of calmly eliminating from the face of the earth over six million human beings. Such people are hollow: they have no soul. Eichmann never turned on the gas, but he was intent on making sure the trains ran on time so the victims could be delivered to their execution on schedule. He was not especially sadistic; he probably never thought about the people who were being gassed at all. But his callous indifference goes to the heart of Arendt’s dismay over his behavior. He was “just doing his job.” Evil can indeed be “banal.”

In a longer observation earlier in her book, Arendt seems to be providing a corollary on Burke’s statement quoted at the outset of this post:

“For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Of course, for any of this to make any sense whatever, we must first accept that the Holocaust did happen — it was not a fiction. And, secondly, we must accept that evil is indeed a fact of life. It is real and some of us, indeed, many of us, are capable of committing evil actions or going along with others who commit them. One would think that both of these things would be easy to accept, but in this age of Newspeak and “false news” it may be too much to ask. We are asked, instead, to forget the past and get caught up in the chaos of the present, to accept lies as the truth and go along with the atrocities that are committed in the name of making America “Great” again. We are overwhelmed each day with information and misinformation mixed together in such a way that it takes the greatest possible effort of will, intellect, and attention to separate the two. Most people simply do not bother. And with our education system failing fewer and fewer people are able to make the separation even if they wanted to.

We would do well to pause and reflect on the nature of evil — which is very real — and the things that have happened in the past that inform the present and should make us wary of so much of what is going on around us. Arendt was right: evil is banal. And while it may be something any one of us is willing to engage in, we should seek above all else to be one of those who recognizes it for what it is and who simply says “No.” With emphasis.

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Panic Attack

I hope you have seen the 25 minute interview with Ed Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong where Snowden now resides until he has determined what the future will bring. He comes across as a bright, articulate, well-informed, and conscientious young man who knows whereof he speaks and also knows exactly what he did. I will not  spoil the interview for you because it is well worth your time, no matter how busy you are. I will simply attach the link here and hope you will check it out.

Toward the end of his interview Mr. Snowden expresses his main concern: that after the dust settles, things will go back to the way they were — except that the intelligence gathering community will become even more efficient and they will continue to gather information about all of us and we have no idea whatever how that information will be used by a government that increasingly borders on paranoia. Actually, I paraphrase and added the bit about paranoia myself. But if you listen to the interview you will see what Mr. Snowden actually does say. He certainly hopes that American citizens will become riled up enough about the situation that they will put pressure on their representatives so that present policies in Washington can be changed and this surveillance nonsense can be thwarted. And he is realistic enough to worry that this will not happen.

So am I. I am put in mind of some comments made by Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, served as a career Army officer, rising to the rank of Colonel. Bacevich recently testified to a Senate committee that Americans have “fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history.” As Bacevich went on to say, “The mystical war on Communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”

Bacevich, like Snowden, also knows whereof he speaks. And given this present aura of “mysticism” in Washington, one can conclude that the Congress in the grips of the military and the intelligence community to a degree that even a full-fledged effort by the American people will not penetrate that fog and result in alterations of national policy. This is the case because it is not only the American citizens who have “fallen prey to militarism,” it is our leaders as well. And with this fog thickening every day, it will become even more difficult to penetrate and messages to Congressional leaders from their constituents will simply not get through. The truly unsettling thing about this situation is that it is largely built on a fiction. Ours is one of the safest countries on earth.

We are separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, as we are reminded by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker article (1/28/13). The country is, “by dint of geography among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Further, our intelligence community, despite its excesses, is considerably better informed about the goings on of suspected terrorists than it was before the attacks on the Twin Towers.  And yet, despite these protections the nation shakes in fear of what we seem convinced is an inevitable terrorist attack that will bring this nation to its knees and wreak havoc among our citizens. We have become increasingly apathetic and are losing our collective sense of perspective. Despite the fact that the odds of any single American being killed by terrorists is approximately the same as that same American winning the lottery, we seem perfectly content to hand over our freedoms and even our consciences to the government in the name of “national security.”

Thus, it would seem, Mr. Snowden’s fears are well founded.  After the dust settles — and it will settle sooner rather than later — things will almost certainly go back to the way they were. The mystique of militarism has us all in its grips, and we seem perfectly content to leave it that way.

The Cost of Defense

This country was founded on the principle that a standing army should never be necessary; under the Second Amendment a militia made up of ordinary citizens would be guaranteed the right to bear arms to protect their country from tyranny. Even after the First World War we had no standing army, though in 1911 the concept of a militia was laid to rest. After the War to End All Wars, the country’s military might continued slowly to grow, and in the 1930s our government had a standing committee in Congress to oversee the military; in 1934 Congress passed the National Firearms act designed to keep the production of weapons of war in the hands of the government — and such weapons as machine guns out of the hands of civilians. In 1939 the Supreme Court upheld the Firearms Act insisting it was entirely consistent with the Second Amendment.

But even keeping them out of the hands of the citizens didn’t keep the production of weapons of war from making some people in this country very wealthy, despite the fact that in 1934 the Senate Munitions Committee was headed by a Republican, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who famously said “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war.” Not long after they were uttered, these prophetic words were soon drowned out by the sound of bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the Second World War a standing army was a matter of course. And with the Cold War ongoing the power of the military grew — as did the wealth of those companies providing the military with weapons and armament, resulting in President Eisenhower’s famous warning against the “military-industrial complex.” That warning has also been drowned out, this time by the sound of the cash registers ringing up huge profits for munitions companies like Lockheed Martin, a firm whose contracts with the Pentagon amount to some thirty billion dollars annually. This company alone spends fifteen million dollars a year to persuade members of Congress that we need a strong military presence in all parts of the world and that the military needs the very latest in weapons. No conflict of interest here!

Photo from The New Yorker magazine

Photo from The New Yorker

It is well known that members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are beholden to the “military-industrial complex,” that entity that has morphed into a hydra-headed monster now in control of Washington. Lockheed Martin has contributed to the election of three hundred and eighty-six of the four hundred and thirty-five members of this Congress. In the distance you can hear (if you listen very carefully) the fading words of President Eisenhower:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . This is not a way of life in any true sense.”

Jill Lapore, the author of a most interesting article in the January 28th issue of The New Yorker tells us that “The United States which was founded on opposition to a standing army is now a nation engaged in a standing war.” This, of course, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all. She quotes Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, who warns us that we “have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force.” Bacevich is now a professor of history at Boston University and he had some profound remarks to make about the war in Afghanistan, which he likens to the War in Viet Nam. “The mystical war against Communism,” he says, “finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism.. . .[mysticism] prevents us from seeing things as they are.” This from a man who knows whereof he speaks. And it should make us ponder the real costs of what is euphemistically called “defense.”