January 17, 2012

Ordinary Evil (I): Just Admit that You're Voting for Hitler, Okay?

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.
-- W.H. Auden
I view the following comments as of special significance with regard to one critical issue, and that is the reason I have transcribed them. Here is Rick Santorum speaking recently about the threat to the United States that he believes Iran represents (the emphasis is mine):
And now they're in the process of developing nuclear weapons, and it appears obvious to me that the administration is doing little to nothing. Now, I'm hopeful that some of the things we're seeing with respect to the nuclear program that the United States is involved with, which is on occasion scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that's a wonderful thing, candidly. I think we should send a very clear message, that if you are a scientist from Russia or from North Korea or from Iran and you're gonna work on the nuclear program to develop a nuclear bomb from Iran, you are not safe.

And if people say, "Well, you can't go out and assassinate people," well, tell that to Awlaki. Okay? We've done it. We've done it for an American citizen. We can certainly do it for someone who's producing a nuclear bomb that can be dropped on the state of Israel or provides a nuclear shield for a country that will spread terrorism with impunity and change the face of the world.
You can watch the video at Sibel Edmonds' site. In the video, at 0:28 (immediately after Santorum says, "scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead"), a bubble appears with this editorial comment: "He just admitted that the U.S. has a program to covertly kill Iranian scientists." It appears (by implication, although not by explicit statement) that this is Edmonds' view as well.

Imprecise argumentation of this kind is not helpful to those of us who strongly criticize the innumerable criminal actions of the United States Government. The inaccuracy of the comment is easily deflected. Moreover, it is the kind of remark that is often characterized by opponents as "hysterical," and it serves as what opponents regard as a valid reason to disregard your arguments in their entirety.

Santorum is speaking extemporaneously; he is not reading a prepared speech. The sentence is awkward and ungrammatical, but the strong sense of it is that Santorum is "hopeful" that the U.S. "is involved with" "some of the things we're seeing" -- and one of "the things we're seeing" is that "on occasion scientists ... turn up dead." Santorum is not saying that he knows the U.S. has ordered and caused the deaths, and he has not "admitted that the U.S. has a program to covertly kill Iranian scientists." He hopes that is what the U.S. is doing, but he doesn't know it.

Besides, Santorum isn't in the Obama administration, and he doesn't speak for the government in any capacity about these events. He is not in a position to "admit" anything that the Obama administration or the U.S. Government do. One person who is in such a position, Defense Secretary Panetta, categorically denies the charge: "I can tell you one thing: The United States was not involved in that kind of effort. That's not what the United States does ... We have some ideas as to who might be involved but we don't know exactly who was involved ... we were not involved in any way, in any way, with regards to the assassination that took place there."

That is the official, public position of the U.S. Government: it is not "involved" in these deaths "in any way." We may not believe the denial -- there are, in fact, many reasons to disbelieve it -- but the denial of involvement is what is on the record from the government itself.

The imprecision matters because this is typical of how public attention to matters of momentous importance is diverted onto comparatively trivial issues. Santorum can easily respond to the notion that he has "admitted" an assassination program by insisting that he only said he was "hopeful" that such a program was in place, and that if he were president there would be such a program. And then we're off into the weeds of what Santorum said or didn't say, what he actually meant, what he's claiming and why, etc. and so on. Meanwhile, the far more important point is ignored altogether.

Analytic imprecision is a constant in our public debates, and I just discussed another instance of this phenomenon in "The Varieties of Pissing." When the ruling class of the United States pisses on the entire world and on every human being who is not among those who are privileged and powerful, some Marines pissing on three dead bodies is barely worthy of notice. To be sure, it remains thoroughly sickening, but it is a third-order crime. The first crime is that the Marines are in Afghanistan; the second crime is that they are there to murder human beings. All our public energies are devoted to the crime of least significance, while the meaning and significance of the first two remain unchallenged.

The real killer in Santorum's remarks -- in more ways than one -- is contained in the second paragraph. Read those comments again:
And if people say, "Well, you can't go out and assassinate people," well, tell that to Awlaki. Okay? We've done it. We've done it for an American citizen. We can certainly do it for someone who's producing a nuclear bomb that can be dropped on the state of Israel or provides a nuclear shield for a country that will spread terrorism with impunity and change the face of the world.
You may view Santorum as a murderer without conscience on the basis of his "hope" that the U.S. Government has instituted a program of assassination. You might argue that Santorum is a genocidal killer in embryonic form when he maintains that the U.S. can "go out and assassinate people" (and Rick: so much for your "sanctity of human life," buddy) -- for one obvious implication of his remarks is that the U.S. Government can murder any and all of those human beings it regards as "threats" to our "security." Why, if the government determines that ten thousand, or a million, or even, say, six million people constitute a serious threat to our "national security," the U.S. Government can kill them all!

"We've done it," Santorum says. He's right. I well understand that the one form of argument that is absolutely prohibited in our public debates is to identify the meaning of a principle. Nonetheless, for the ten or twelve of you who resist the fatal corruptions of our "public discourse," I state that the "legitimacy" of wide-scale murder, even of millions of human beings, is the meaning of the operative principle.

But -- and here's the additional killer in Santorum's remarks -- note where Santorum correctly locates the "justification" for his view: the murder of al-Awlaki, an American citizen. Santorum is a "crazy" Republican nutjob, right? He's not the one who ordered the murder of al-Awlaki. You know who did: the "enlightened," "nuanced," Nobel Peace Prize-winning Democrat in the White House. Many liberals and progressives claim to be sickened and terrified by the prospect that some "crazy" Republican might be the next president -- and they forbid themselves to acknowledge that it is a Democratic president who has provided the moral sanction and "justification" for what could, in principle, become a genocidal, worldwide campaign of murder.

But at least he's not crazy! I'm reminded of a brief passage I wrote in what was almost a throwaway post from a year and a half ago:
Oh, President Obama! What a visionary! What a leader! Such momentous change from the dark days of evil, crazy Bush!

I always especially enjoy that argument from liberals and progressives. "Oh, the Democrats might be doing most of the same things, well, practically all the same things, and maybe some of the things Obama's doing are even worse ... but the Republicans are crazy!"

Yeah, I see how that works. Obama and the Democrats do all this -- and they're entirely sane. They know exactly what they're doing, why, and even what the effects will be.

This, we are repeatedly assured, is a notable improvement, for which we should be properly grateful.
What Americans desperately need to face, and what most of them adamantly refuse to acknowledge, is that to vote for either the Democratic or Republican nominee for president later this year is to vote for these horrors. It is to support them. (I consider it impossible that Ron Paul will be the Republican nominee, whatever your view of his candidacy might be. If by some miracle he were, he would never be elected. The ruling class, including its indispensable ancillary component, the media complex, will not permit it. I don't consider this an arguable point, not in this world.)

At this point, because the great majority of Americans will not allow themselves to understand it, I must repeat the meaning of the most important gift of the admirably "normal," "knowledgeable," and sane Democratic administration:
Obama and his administration claim the "right" to murder anyone in the world, wherever he or she may be, for whatever reason they choose -- or for no reason at all. Obama and his administration recognize no upper limit to the number of people they can murder in this manner: they can murder as many people as they wish. And they claim there is nothing at all that may impede their exercise of this "right."

This is the game entire. Understand this: once Obama and his administration have claimed this, there is nothing left to argue about. They can murder you -- and they can murder anyone else at all.
Tens of millions of Americans will vote for the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. They will not understand that they are thereby supporting evil. They refuse to consider withdrawing that support. If a sufficiently large number of people refused to vote at all, then my fable might even become true in some form: "The Tale that Might Be Told." I've said a few times that that is only a fable, and that I never intended it to be a projection of events that could actually occur. I've changed my mind on that point. Since I have spent the last five or six years documenting developments that I never expected to see transpire in my lifetime, including in this post, I now think that "tale" is not so farfetched after all. Suffering and death do not exhaust the possibilities for human transformation, not in my view. And I freely acknowledge that I unconditionally love that little story.

Most Americans are like badly damaged children: they expect evil to announce itself in advance, with the aid of thundering, ominous music on the soundtrack of their increasingly desperate lives. But that is not how evil most commonly arrives. It comes with a gentle, reassuring smile. It insinuates itself with soothing platitudes. It speaks of "threats" to our "security" that cannot be countenanced. It says it only wants to make you "safe."

And the murders go on, and they increase in number. Later on, those who manage to survive will be heard to say, "But we never knew it would come to that." Or they insist that most people "went along," and ask: Who was I to stand against that tide? Yet they will not be able to say they were not warned, or that no one had ever seen such horrors before. Consider this:
"You know," he went on, "when men who understand what is happening--the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single events or developments--when such men do not object or protest, men who do not understand cannot be expected to. How many men would you say understand--in this sense--in America? And when, as the motion of history accelerates and those who don't understand are crazed by fear, as our people were, and made into a great 'patriotic' mob, will they understand then, when they did not before?

"We learned here--I say this freely--to give up trying to make them understand after, oh, the end of 1938, after the night of the synagogue burning and the things that followed it. Even before the war began, men who were teachers, men whose faith in teaching was their whole faith, gave up, seeing that there was no comprehension, no capacity left for comprehension, and the thing must go its course, taking first its victims, then its architects, and then the rest of us to destruction. ..."
You will find more passages from Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free in my essay from September 2006 about the passage of the Military Commissions Act: "Thus the World Was Lost."

As I wrote, just one year ago:
Obama will not renounce his claim to the "right" of ultimate violence. Who will be next on his kill list? Who else is on it now? With the dutiful acquiescence of the courts -- so much for your vaunted "rule of law" -- we will never know. But wait: you may know to some extent, when the "disappearances" can no longer be explained by coincidence, or you see the corpses pile up.

Oh, that could never happen here!, you exclaim in a petulant whine. This is America! That, too, is a critical part of the mythology Obama burnished for you last night. Consult history: all peoples in all places always believe it can't happen here.

Last evening, Obama also said: "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world." He should know.
No, evil does not come to us proclaiming its true nature. Evil is not committed only by screaming, psychopathic maniacs. Most of the time, and certainly in the beginning, it seems completely ordinary. It is, as Auden said, "unspectacular and always human." It appears to be entirely normal. The greatest danger is not the person whom you view as obviously "crazy." The greatest danger is the person you regard as normal, thoughtful and well-spoken, the person who claims to be opposed to the horrors and who says he's on your side. This is precisely why Obama (and the Democrats generally) constitute a singular threat to those of us who genuinely value the sanctity of a single life -- and this is what a few of us said before the last presidential election: see, from May 2008, "The Fatal Illusion of Opposition."

No, we will not see evil for what it actually is. We invite it into our home. We ask it to eat at our own table.

To be continued, very soon.