Thursday, July 19, 2007

Is Torture Banal?

Hannah Arendt's banality of evil thesis stirred up a good amount of hot disagreement when first introduced in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, but it's since acquired the status of conventional wisdom. Arendt argues that people like Adolf Eichmann who perform evil actions aren't necessarily moral monsters with a will to destruction. Instead, they might just be ordinary people who have so internalized their state's everyday normative assumptions that they uncritically accept them as part of the moral landscape. What characterizes them isn't a malevolent will so much as an absence of critical thinking, empathic imagination, and moral judgment. For them, acts which any reasonable intelligent and empathic person would consider heinous are normalized by being given official sanction.

There's a good deal of merit to the banality of evil thesis, and it certainly does a better job of explaining an anonymous little apparatchik like Eichmann than its malevolent monster alternative. But like many good ideas, Arendt's thesis has been overused. Not all evil is banal. Some evil actions, as William James observed in Varieties of Religious Experience, are "so extreme as to enter into no good system [i.e., explanatory model] whatsoever." Some evil-doers (yeah, I know; the word has unfortunate connotations since being shanghaied by the President, but it's not inappropriate here) aren't thoughtless followers who swallow whatever normative pill their power structure tells them to swallow. Some enjoy hurting other people. They get a kick out of it. They dig on it. Their evil, welling up from some deep and horrible brokenness in them, is extraordinary, not banal.
I'd suggest that proximity is a decisive (although probably not the only) factor in distinguishing banal from malevolent evil. People who personally brutalize others "up close and personal"--torturers, concentration camp guards, death camp executioners--are more likely to be operating out of the malevolent than the banal mode. If you read interviews with these kinds of people, you'll discover that they enjoy it, even if they're also wracked by guilt. They recognize full well that their actions don't reflect the normative, either in the moral or the quotidian sense of the word. They recognize that they're doing something quite out of the ordinary, totally off the beaten path, and this is part of what excites them about it. They may insist that they're simply "following orders," but this is little more than a lie to escape justice.
Bottom line: the actual act of inflicting intense physical and psychological pain on another human being can never be "normalized." People who do it regularly aren't banal. They're malevolent. Torturers aren't ordinary people. Ordinary people, recruited into torture squads, may participate once or twice. But they'll soon crack from the sheer nonordinary horror of what they're doing.
But the distant acceptance of torture--well, that's a different matter. Those of us who believe (reluctantly, of course; after all, we're good, decent, moral people, aren't we?) that sometimes torture--or, rather, "enhanced interrogation"--is necessary for our security are indulging in evil of the banal kind. Our moral landscape legitimates actions such as "soft" and "ticking bomb" torture. They're acceptable--but only because we never really get too close to them. They're abstractions for us. We never see bleeding flesh or hear screams, much less directly cause them. We don't even run across too many walking zombies who've been crushed by torture. The general public which allows its leaders to sanction torture; the apparatchiks, from the President on down, who sign abstract orders allowing it; the legislators, who pass abstract resolutions legalizing it; the attorneys who crunch precedents to defend the laws: we are all the perpetrators of torture as a banal form of evil.
But banal evil is evil nonetheless.