November 19, 2012

Toward the World Where "Everything Is Possible," and About the Honor of Being Human

[M]en determined to commit crimes will find it expedient to organize them on the vastest, most improbable scale. Not only because this renders all punishments provided by the legal system inadequate and absurd; but because the very immensity of the crimes guarantees that the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth. The Nazis did not even consider it necessary to keep this discovery to themselves. Hitler circulated millions of copies of his book in which he stated that to be successful, a lie must be enormous—which did not prevent people from believing him as, similarly, the Nazis' proclamations, repeated ad nauseam, that the Jews would be exterminated like bedbugs (i.e., with poison gas), prevented anybody from not believing them. There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us, there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense. The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents.


Many things that nowadays have become the specialty of totalitarian government are only too well known from the study of history. There have almost always been wars of aggression; the massacre of hostile populations after a victory went unchecked until the Romans mitigated it by introducing the parcere subjectis; through centuries the extermination of native peoples went hand in hand with the colonization of the Americas, Australia and Africa; slavery is one of the oldest institutions of mankind and all empires of antiquity were based on the labor of state-owned slaves who erected their public buildings. Not even concentration camps are an invention of totalitarian movements. They emerge for the first time during the Boer War, at the beginning of the century, and continued to be used in South Africa as well as India for "undesirable elements"; here, too, we first find the term "protective custody" which was later adopted by the Third Reich. These camps correspond in many respects to the concentration camps at the beginning of totalitarian rule; they were used for "suspects" whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law. All this clearly points to totalitarian methods of domination; all these are elements they utilize, develop and crystallize on the basis of the nihilistic principle that "everything is permitted," which they inherited and already take for granted.

But wherever these new forms of domination assume their authentically totalitarian structure they transcend this principle, which is still tied to the utilitarian motives and self-interest of the rulers, and try their hand in a realm that up to now has been completely unknown to us: the realm where "everything is possible." And, characteristically enough, this is precisely the realm that cannot be limited by either utilitarian motives or self-interest, regardless of the latter's content. What runs counter to common sense is not the nihilistic principle that "everything is permitted," which was already contained in the nineteenth-century utilitarian conception of common sense.

What common sense and "normal people" refuse to believe is that everything is possible. We attempt to understand elements in present or recollected experience that simply surpass our powers of understanding. We attempt to classify as criminal a thing which, as we all feel, no such category was ever intended to cover. What meaning has the concept of murder when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses? We attempt to understand the behavior of concentration-camp inmates and SS-men psychologically, when the very thing that must be realized is that the psyche can be destroyed even without the destruction of the physical man; that, indeed, psyche, character, and individuality seem under certain circumstances to express themselves only through the rapidity or slowness with which they disintegrate. The end result in any case is inanimate men, i.e., men who can no longer be psychologically understood, whose return to the psychologically or otherwise intelligibly human world closely resembles the resurrection of Lazarus.
Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism (footnotes omitted)

I offer this excerpt from Arendt's monumental work for two reasons. The first, narrower reason is my recognition that most people will reject, and frequently find objectionable in the extreme, my characterization of Gaza as a concentration camp. In most significant part, this is undoubtedly because most people associate concentration camps with the horrors of the Nazi regime. While that may be (understandably) the first association that comes to mind, the Nazi concentration camps hardly exhaust the historic or analytic meaning and significance of the term. Arendt provides an admirably succinct summary of the phenomenon in recent history. Certainly, the idea of a confined space (regardless of size) for the detainment of "undesirable elements" applies to Gaza; those who are confined in Gaza and may leave (and reenter, should they wish) only by permission, are "undesirable" in the eyes of those who so confine them.

A closely related application of the term is one that many people also resist: the idea of holding "suspects" when, as Arendt notes, their "offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law," directly implicates the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, as well as all the other sites (known and unknown) where the U.S. government imprisons people outside the "process of law" altogether. Understanding the term "concentration camps" in this manner -- which is fully supported by both history and the plain, uncontroverted meaning of words -- leads to the conclusion that the United States government maintains concentration camps, and has done so for years. Moreover, there are further examples in U.S. history: the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and "reservations" for Native Americans, and there are still more. To make statements of this kind is not to engage in polemics only for effect or rhetorical tricks: the words designate a particular phenomenon. This is what the words mean; this is what Israel does in Gaza, this is what the U.S. does today and has done in the past. Nonetheless, as Arendt states, "the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth." This, too, is a profound tragedy repeated throughout history, including our own.

The second, broader reason for the excerpt concerns Arendt's discussion of the destruction of the human psyche, the destruction of the essence of what it means to be human at all. This is an issue to which I shall soon return.

I continue to raise these subjects because of what is perhaps my overriding, most urgent concern at the moment. I discussed it in "Against Voting" at length, and it comes up in other recent essays in different ways. My concern is the one that Arendt addresses over and over: the desperate need to withdraw one's support in every way possible from a system which is primarily devoted to suffering, destruction and death. This was the very point that so concerned the German engineer who failed to withdraw his support from the Nazi regime, when it was still possible to do so and when such withdrawal might have altered the course of events. I set out the details in the third part of "Accomplices to Murder." I titled that last section "The Lesson of History." It is the lesson most people refuse to learn.

The engineer's argument was not that his refusal alone would have changed anything, when it obviously would not have. His argument was a very different one:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost."

"You are serious?" I said.

"Completely," he said. "These hundred lives I saved--or a thousand or ten as you will--what do they represent? A little something out of the whole terrible evil, when, if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
So here we are in America today -- ruled by a government which tells us many, many times, that it has the "right" to murder any innocent human being anywhere in the world, whenever it wishes -- and most people will not believe that the declaration of evil is precisely that: a declaration of evil. The lie is so "vast" and "improbable" that people will not permit themselves to grasp it: "the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth."

And most Americans are like the German engineer and all the other hundreds of thousands in Germany in 1935. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, tens of millions of Americans are "not prepared to resist," they are "unprepared." So those who are devoted to evil, who proclaim their dedication to evil every day, continue with their plans, and evil continually expands its reach.

The failure to withdraw to the fullest extent one can means that one continues to support a system that murders, that unleashes destruction around the globe, that causes limitless suffering and pain. In this way, the world may well be lost once more.

I do not contend that withdrawing one's support is easy. It is never easy under any circumstances, and the costs of many kinds and in many forms may be enormous. In individual cases, the costs may ultimately include the greatest one of all. But if we recognize the stakes involved, if we understand the nature of the system we are supporting, we at least should ask ourselves, especially whenever we are tempted to think, "But what can I do? I don't have a choice, not in any meaningful way" -- especially at those moments, we should ask ourselves: But is that true? Do I need to vote at all? What is the meaning of the act of voting itself, particularly in the system as it exists today? Should I pay taxes? Should I work for this corporation, or that branch of the government?

We should ask ourselves these questions and many related ones. We should ask them all the time. Before we can resist, we must be aware. The purpose of such questions is to know and understand the full meaning of our own choices and actions. This is what Arendt means by "the honor of being human":
Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, "Why did you obey?" but "Why did you support?" This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere "words" have over the minds of men who, first of all, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word "obedience" from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.
With regard to these issues, perhaps the worst fate of all would be to realize one day that the world has been tragically lost still another time, with all the attendant, immeasurable, endless pain and suffering -- and not to understand how it happened.