The Dark Side or the banality of evil reconsidered

As someone who’s been writing columns about torture since Abu Ghraib, I was greatly impressed with Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, which chronicles the Bush administration’s increasing embrace of authoritarian policies and torture in the year’s after 9/11. Mayer told me a lot I didn’t know and helped show in detail how we slid down the greasy slope.
And that got me thinking about the banality of evil again. As you’ll remember from my previous post, this was Hannah Arendt’s term for how mundane, dull and non-fanatical most participants in the Final Solution were, and how easy it was to participate without any personal commitment to genocide.
Mayer’s book shows much the same state of mind in the Bush years. Sure, Vice President Cheney and his trusted attorney David Addington were passionate about giving the presidency autocratic powers that couldn’t be reigned in by Congress or the courts, but most of the other players seem to be fueled by much less ambitious goals.
There were the people who just followed orders. They were told to get information so they did, even if it was made up to stop the pain.
There was the bureaucratic infighting: Rumsfeld, at one point, pushes for “results” because he was worried the CIA would get control of the cool prisoners.
There was simple cluelessness. The CIA in 2001 had no experience in interrogating adversaries (as opposed to defectors) and looked to the TV show 24 for inspiration.
There was careerism. Addington had Cheney’s ear and anyone who went up against them and their view of the presidency (and Mayer makes it clear just how radical it was) wasn’t going to get far at the White House.
And in the years since Bush, we can add the Obama administration covering up the torture regime for its own reasons. And the large number of Democrats who are now defending Obama’s decisions because hey, he’s a Democrat (so as attorney Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, we know have both sides embracing surveillance and torture as legitimate government exercises).
What’s encouraging, though, is that, as Arendt pointed out decades ago, not everyone signed on. The JAGs fought the flaws in the military commissions proposal. People in the Office of Legal Counsel kept pointing out the weakness of Addington’s legal arguments (and those of John Yoo, who claimed there was no legal restriction that would stop the president having children tortured to make their parent talk). Navy Counsel Alberto Mora fought against the Bush regime. They didn’t win, but they fought and they spoke out, and sometimes, when they saw how futile it was, walked out.
Even in the darkness, there are some people who walk in light. It’s good to remember that.

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Filed under Politics, Reading

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