Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 July 2008

The Banality of Evil


There he was, his picture plastered over television and newspapers worldwide. With his massive glasses, thick white beard and mane of white hair tucked into a small pony tail—he looked like an innocuous new age guru. He seemed a harmless ball of white fuzz, Serbia’s “Doctor Phil.” Who would have guessed that under all that white fuzz lay the Butcher of Srebrenica?

Here was the guy who had ordered several thousand unarmed and helpless Muslim men and boys—some as young as sixteen—shot down in cold blood and laid in mass graves. Here was the guy who made a hard rain of artillery shells and sniper bullets fall upon innocent civilians for months on end, converting the historic city of Sarajevo into a nightmarish field of random murder and dismemberment.

Radovan Karadzic had a justification as banal as evil itself. We Serbs, he repeatedly said, were victims. From the fields of Kosovo over six centuries ago to the Second World War, “we” had been misunderstood, battered and mistreated. Therefore, his logic went, “we” have the right and duty to misunderstand, batter and mistreat others.

Karadzic is a sophisticated, well-educated man. He believed devoutly in ethnic cleansing and mass murder, which he justified and promoted in word and deed. He is truly “the worst of the worst.”

Richard Holbrooke is one of our best. A brilliant, consummately skilled diplomat and negotiator, he is as calm and understated as Barack Obama. He never raises his voice or uses incendiary language. Here’s what he said about Radovan Karadzic:
    “The man we’re talking about today is responsible, directly or indirectly, for 300,000 deaths, 2.5 million homeless, and the destruction of a multi-ethnic society. . . .

    “Early on in [our negotiating] session, Karadzic just exploded, started talking about the humiliation of the Serb nation and how unfair life was to Serbs, the kind of classic self-victimization of the Serbs with which [others who worked there were] so familiar.”
Does this story ring a bell? A people nurse historical grudges, real and imagined. A charismatic leader plays on their sense of victimization and fills them with fear and rage. A military buildup and explosion follows, leaving behind the corpses of innocent victims, a record of bestial atrocities, and the shreds of civilized society.

Wasn’t that precisely what Adolf Hitler did with his Nazis? As Holbrooke so mildly put it, “[c]harisma in the hands of evil people can lead to the most terrible brutalities.”

No one who loves democracy and fair play—even basic humanity—can fail to exult at the long-delayed capture of this vicious and unrepentant butcher.

But what about us here at home? Could something similar ever happen here? No one would ever accuse Dubya, Cheney, David Addington or David Yoo of charisma. Maybe we were lucky in that regard.

I do not mean to compare these men with the Nazis or Radovan Karadzic. The duration, scale, and scope of Nazi and Serb atrocities were incomparably more hideous and grandiose. Our leaders jailed hundreds at most, tortured only a few, and only a handful appear to have died. Hitler started a conflagration that ultimately killed fifty million people and nearly destroyed western civilization. The scope of Karadzic’s depredation is clear from Holbrooke’s summary above.

Our leaders were pikers in comparison. But wasn’t their justification for torture, rendition, “black sites” and flaying our Constitution precisely the same? We were victims on 9/11, they said. We were brutally attacked without provocation. We had no way of knowing when another attack might occur. So we had the right—and the duty—of warding off another brutal attack with the most brutal, least thoughtful, least lawful, and least civilized means possible.

There was a sense of victimization and self-righteousness, followed by a firm conviction of moral superiority. There was a demonization of the enemy, using words like “Axis of Evil” and “Islamofascists.” That Idiot Rumsfeld called all the prisoners in Guantánamo the “worst of the worst,” although many, like bin Laden’s driver, were bit players—often unwilling—in a drama over which they had little or no control. Finally, there were the banal ideas that ends justify means, followed by complete disregard of long-term and short-term consequences.

Only our strong democratic traditions, plus a blessed deficit of charisma among our own banally evil men, saved us from a further fall from grace. Here, as elsewhere, evil occurs when men of mediocre intelligence and corruptible character meet extraordinary challenges and resort to ancient barbarism because they are capable of nothing more.

Here, as elsewhere, evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Our Congress can’t even enforce its own subpoenas. Its members wait timidly, hoping that Senator Obama will ride in on a white horse as president, bringing a Democratic landslide and finally cleaning house.

We may be through the worst of it now. The Dubya Administration’s handling of 9/11 and its aftermath has been thoroughly discredited. An impulsive attack on Iran seems more remote by the day. Dubya’s popularity is consistently the lowest ever measured since accurate polling began. Change is finally in the air.

But we have not yet even begun the accounting that we must have. Take a look at the House hearings last week. Or simply watch Jon Stewart’s brilliant collage of snippets from that and earlier testimony.

What you will see is our own banal perpetrators of evil—John Ashcroft, David Addington, David Yoo, and others—telling their classic story of self-victimization, self-righteousness, demonization, freedom from legal and civilized restraint, and disregard for consequences. That is, if they talk at all.

Their most worrisome trait is the total absence of a sense of accountability or responsibility. Whether before the press or the people’s elected representatives, they adamantly refuse to answer to anyone but their Supreme Leader and themselves.

John Ashcroft put it best. He was our own Attorney General, our chief law-enforcement officer. He worked for us, the people. Yet time after time, he flatly refused to explain how and why he allowed his boss’ administration to degenerate into lawlessness and brutality. “I’m trying to think of all the reasons that are appropriate,” he told Congress, “to refuse to answer that question.”

As you listen to his mild-mannered but adamant refusal to come clean, it is impossible not to see a very faint but recognizable reflection of the Nuremburg Trials some sixty years ago.

Patriotism is not blind loyalty to a leader. Nor is it Fourth of July parades. It is thinking hard and working hard to make sure that nothing like the Holocaust or the Rape of Srebrenica and Sarajevo ever happens here or under our flag.

Over the past seven years, it almost did. As we take satisfaction from the long-overdue accounting that Butcher Karadzic now must face, we should not forget the long-overdue accounting that remains unmade here at home.

On way or another, the rotten innards of this banally evil administration are going to be exposed to the sunlight over the next five years, and we are all going to see with horror just how close we came.

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