Friday, April 17, 2009

the banality of evil

Today the New York Times published the full CIA documents released by the Justice Department on Thursday detailing the interrogation techniques that were approved for use during the Bush Administration and its War on Terror.

The danger, of course, in reading excerpts from these documents before I’ve had my morning coffee is that the hard edges of day haven’t yet supplanted the soft boundaries of dreaming where emotions float close to the surface. Which means that this morning, while reading about how my country, with intent, tortured captives in their custody, I wept.

I knew all this before -- we all did. As President Obama pointed out in his statement on the documents, “the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported.”

It’s the banality that’s horrifying. The simple labels, denuded of intent. The matter of fact assessments of their impacts.

Of Walling, a method in which the interrogator “quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. ... The head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel ... to help prevent whiplash” it is decided: “while it may hurt ... any pain experienced is not of the intensity associated with serious physical injury.”

Of Wall standing, in which “The individual stands about four to five feet from a wall. ... His arms are stretched out in front of him, with his fingers resting on the wall.” it is decided: “any pain associated with muscle fatigue is not of the intensity sufficient to amount to ‘severe physical pain or suffering’ under the statute, nor, despite its discomfort, can it be said to be difficult to endure.”

Of Waterboarding, the effects of which Christopher Hitchens documented following his own experiments, it is determined: “In the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute.” [1]

In his statement President Obama urged that we not prosecute the individuals responsible for the execution of the Bush directives; that we move forward from here because “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Of course I thought of Arendt when I read that; of her 1963 reflection on Eichmann’s Nuremberg Trial; of her conclusion that:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic but were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied ... that this new type of criminal, who is indeed hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

A Reporter at Large: Eichmann in Jerusalem V by Hannah Arendt in the 16 March 1963 issue of the New Yorker, p. 132

[1] Explaining and Authorizing Specific Interrogation Techniques in the 17 April 2009 New York Times.


I, Rodius said...

My own reactions to the whole torture debate disturb me. I think, really? Is it so bad? It's not disfiguring, disabling, fatal. It's uncomfortable. It's unpleasant. Is that so bad, when the stakes are so high? Discomfort to gain info that may save many, many lives?

And then I think, yes. It is so bad. No legal recourse, just indefinitely lost in a legal limbo in which the captors make your life uncomfortable and unpleasant and maybe worse, with no end in sight, and no hope of ever proving that you don't deserve it.

I am the banally evil.

suttonhoo said...

that's the trick isn't it: not being able to walk away. not being able to control or even entirely influence what happens this moment, or the next.

Rahul said...

If you're in NY before May 31st... you need to go see "Protect Protect" at the Whitney by Jenny Holzer. Just saw it y'day with my dad... pretty amazing.

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