June 04, 2010

Evil in Broad Daylight -- Unnamed, Unremarked and Uncondemned

If I were a war criminal, if I were guilty of acts of unalloyed evil (I repeat myself, but perhaps not unnecessarily in this context), I would be immensely gratified to witness the consistency with which all those who take part in approved public discussions of my actions analyze "all such issues -- issues, for example, of indefinite imprisonment, torture and assassination -- [as] 'policy choices' to be politely debated, as we sip our tea, daintily curl our pinkies, chew our tasty little sandwiches oh so delicately and, every now then, tut-tut about some regrettable 'excesses.'" Hence, the title of that recent post: "The Monstrousness Is Now Our Life." Evil is the everyday, the commonplace, that which has become so regularized that it evokes no notice at all -- except, to be sure, as "policy choices" to be debated as one might choose a movie to watch this evening with one's family.

In my unfailing generosity and reluctance to offer unduly severe judgments in the absence of sufficient evidence, it thus appears that I have significantly understated the problem by referring to it as "making friends with evil." Evil is not just one friend among others: evil is the friend of singular importance, the best and only irreplaceable companion. Evil constitutes the indispensable standard, the frame of reference within which all other judgments are made. Surely, this cannot be evil itself, for this is our life. It is simply the way things are.

We are now comfortably settled in the anteroom of Hell. Before we radically alter our circumstances, if that should happen in my lifetime or yours (I would bet against that possibility myself), we shall almost certainly enter Hell itself. Those who manage to survive that part of the journey may be able to begin to construct a very different kind of existence. Perhaps. And there have always been survivors before. So you might take some consolation from that fact -- although history can offer no guarantee on this point.

"The Monstrousness Is Now Our Life" dealt with The New York Times and one of its regular op-ed columnists as examples of this everyday monstrousness. Now consider the following example of the identical phenomenon from The Washington Post:
Beneath its commitment to soft-spoken diplomacy and beyond the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has significantly expanded a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, according to senior military and administration officials.

Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget, and are deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of last year. In addition to units that have spent years in the Philippines and Colombia, teams are operating in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Commanders are developing plans for increasing the use of such forces in Somalia, where a Special Operations raid last year killed the alleged head of al-Qaeda in East Africa. Plans exist for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around the world, meant to be put into action when a plot has been identified, or after an attack linked to a specific group.


One advantage of using "secret" forces for such missions is that they rarely discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.

Obama, one senior military official said, has allowed "things that the previous administration did not."
It is lamentably true that all this was entirely predictable. I and some others did predict it, in fact; see "The Fatal Illusion of Opposition" as one example. I will not dwell on this, except to note that, absent a comprehensive demonstration of their understanding and correction of their methodological failures, no one who voted for Obama and urged others to do so in the utterly unfounded hope that a notably different result would obtain should be accorded seriousness or respect in today's superlatively polite "debates" about these issues.

I will note only a few aspects of the immense evil contained in the opening of the Post story. That is the first aspect of significance, perhaps of the greatest import: nowhere is this evil identified as evil. This is simply what the United States government does now: this is how life is. Yes, we might argue about whether these policies and actions are "advisable" or "counterproductive." But, would you rather see another movie tonight?

This "secret war" now encompasses the entire world. The U.S. government fights against not only the all-purpose, never-defined "al-Qaeda," but "other radical groups." Special Operations forces are already deployed in 75 countries -- at least, that's the staggering number that certain "officials" will acknowledge. And "[p]lans exist for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around the world..."

In other words: the U.S. government has already made careful, detailed preparation on a worldwide scale to launch operations to murder and destroy whomever they wish. As far as we -- that is, "ordinary" citizens or anyone else in the world -- are concerned, the sole justification is that such murder and destruction is what the United States government has decided to do. Of course, they will claim that they take action to protect the U.S. from its enemies -- but there will never be any way to determine whether such a claim is true in even the smallest degree.

To put the matter very briefly: America is God. God's Will be done. Yes, I've been making this point for quite a long time. As that essay from three years ago discusses, Barack Obama has proclaimed his abiding belief in this national catechism from his first appearance on the national scene. No one ever had even a single reason to believe otherwise. Many people did believe otherwise, but that was only because they deluded themselves into thinking that critical decisions can properly be based on unfounded and unjustified "hope." In the realm of politics, and certainly insofar as America in the last few decades is concerned, "hope" as the foundation for a decision of any moment is a game for fools. We are not lacking for those.

With regard to the normalization of evil, among the more stomach-turning passages in the Post story is this:
For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.
"Politically useful tools" -- as applied to a program of systematic murder of innocent civilians. When the regular, predictable, necessarily unavoidable murder of innocent civilians is a central element of the program at issue, such murder is not "collateral damage" or a "regrettable" side effect. When it is regular, predictable and necessarily unavoidable, it is the point.

This, too, was predicted. From January 2009, "You Aren't Going to Beat the System, Baby":
The overall course the Obama administration will follow will be that indicated by [Naomi] Klein with regard to torture, and the same stratagem will be applied to the use of torture, to confrontation with Iran, and to every other issue of significance. Klein refers to the removal of "small piece[s]" of the torture apparatus, and the return to "plausible deniability." We can make the same point in a different way: the Obama administration will return to the days when the U.S. government practiced all these horrors, but with better PR.


It now appears that the response of the Obama administration (and of most of its already dedicated defenders) to the horrors of the past eight years will be what I have predicted all along -- the response that is, in fact, necessitated by our corporatist-authoritarian-militarist form of government: a return to "camouflage" and better public relations, and a return to "plausible deniability." And the torture will go on, as will the wars of aggression.

Will more effective PR silence those who have criticized the U.S.'s acts of brutality and inhumanity so strenuously, but almost exclusively when those acts have been practiced by Republicans? We shall see soon enough. If we are to judge from the blanket of silence that has greeted the latest acts of barbarity and slaughter occurring in the Middle East and Obama's loathsome complicity, Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches will bring an end to almost all meaningful opposition -- which is also an argument I have made repeatedly.
My reference to "slaughter occurring in the Middle East" concerned the loathsome Israeli campaign in Gaza, but you can recycle precisely the same argument today for the loathsome Israeli attack on the relief ships. On the subject of the general dynamics involved, I direct you to one of the earlier pieces: "The Slaughter of the Diseased Animals."

Confronted by evil of the magnitude embodied by the U.S. government, what can one do? To answer that question, one must first identify and confront the fact that almost all Americans do not merely obey the requirements of the Death State: in countless ways, they support it. For a discussion of this subject, please consult: "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?"

That article offers excerpts from an especially notable Hannah Arendt essay, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship." See my article for a discussion of "The Imminent, but Not-Yet, Not-Quite Dictatorship" that holds sway in the United States, and therefore why Arendt's observations are so crucially relevant. I discussed certain of Arendt's points further in an article dated January 1, 2009: "The Same Year of Hatred, Cruelty and Violence, Endlessly Repeating." That essay offers additional thoughts on a subject to which I recently returned: the power of "No."

I want to repeat one particular passage from Arendt, because I consider this the ultimate root of the decision to say, "No" -- that is, to refuse to cooperate with evil. Most commentators make what I consider a grievous error in this regard. It is true that non-cooperation can be astonishingly effective and powerful; see the examples I offer in the Addendum to the recent piece. But from a much deeper psychological -- or, if you will, humanistic -- perspective, such calculations about the effectiveness of the refusal to cooperate become less significant. Don't misunderstand me: it is hardly the case that I think the powerfully life-affirming results of non-cooperation are insignificant. Since no value is higher or more sacred to me than that of a single human life, such results -- of even one life saved -- are of the greatest importance.

But I am referring here to the deepest source of that passionate refusal, which arises from a very different concern. Here is what Arendt says about that source:
[T]he nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards or right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. ... Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition would they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command "Thou shalt not kill," but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer -- themselves.
Thus, the refusal to "commit[] certain deeds" may spare many lives, and we can only imagine what might have happened even in Nazi Germany -- or what might happen in America today -- if a critical number of people had chosen non-cooperation, but that is not what impels an individual to say, "No," in the first instance. Rather, it is the person's commitment to being able to go on living with himself, that is, it is the primacy of the fact that the person's conscience and soul will not permit him to act otherwise. We might say that the preservation of the person's integrity is the first and greatest of rewards, but even to phrase the matter in such terms is to mischaracterize the point again. The individual's conscience and convictions will not permit him to do otherwise. That is the source of the "No."

For all those who seem capable only of calculating how "effective" such decisions can be in what, for me, are comparatively superficial, even trivial, terms, I will emphasize that such decisions certainly can change the world. When we consult history, we find that the choice of non-cooperation has indeed altered the world in momentous ways, and saved countless lives.

A certain kind of reader (usually, the kind who talks incessantly of "effectiveness" and "viability" in tragically limited "political" terms) will typically misunderstand my admonition to "change yourselves." They interpret my statement to signify and encourage a retreat to a disengaged, narcissistic "self-improvement." It should be clear that my meaning is exactly the opposite. Politics is one of the final results of innumerable earlier, much more personal choices and actions (or as I have phrased it: "politics is only a symptom of a more fundamental condition. Unless we address these more fundamental concerns, the symptom will never be altered in a lasting way.") Our politics -- now the politics of the Death State, which claims for itself the power to destroy anyone and everyone at its unanswerable whim -- will change only when enough people make profoundly different, intimately personal choices. So I should perhaps redirect the emphasis in my earlier question. Now, it should not be: "Why do you support?" Instead, it should be:

Why do you support?

(There are several other points raised in the Post article that I want to discuss, as well as a number of questions related to the commentary above, but I will do that in separate articles.)