The concept of the banality of evil came into prominence following the publication of Hannah Arendt's 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was based on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt's thesis was that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.
Normalizing the Unthinkable
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. The late Herman Kahn spent a lifetime making nuclear war palatable (On Thermonuclear War, Thinking About the Unthinkable), and this strangelovian phoney got very good press. ~
In an excellent article entitled "Normalizing the unthinkable," in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of March 1984, Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was "normalized" for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: "[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed." Peattie focused on the parallel between routinization in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the "unthinkable" is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. "Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone."
Peattie noted that the head of MlT's main military research lab in the 1960s argued that "their concern was development, not use, of technology." Just as in the death camps, in weapons labs and production facilities, resources are allocated on the basis of effective participation in the larger system, workers derive support from interactions with others in the mutual effort, and complicity is obscured by the routineness of the work, interdependence, and distance from the results.
Peattie also pointed out how, given the unparalleled disaster that would follow nuclear war, "resort is made to rendering the system playfully, via models and games." There is also a vocabulary developed to help render the unthinkable palatable: "incidents," "vulnerability indexes," "weapons impacts," and "resource availability." She doesn't mention it, but our old friend "collateral damage," used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, came out of the nukespeak tradition.
Slavery and Racism as Routine
When I was a boy, and an ardent baseball fan, I never questioned, or even noticed, that there were no Black baseball players in the big leagues. That was the way it was; racism was so routine that it took years of incidents, movement actions, reading, and real-world traumas to overturn my own deeply imbedded bias. Historically, this was a country in which human slavery was firmly institutionalized and routinized, with abolitionists in the pre-civil war years looked upon as violent extremists by the dominant elites and masses alike in the North.
The rationalizations for slavery were remarkable. A set of intellectuals arose in the South before 1860 that not only defended slavery, but argued its moral superiority on the grounds of its service to the slaves, to the disadvantage of the enslaving Whites! Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, ... is a superb account of how U.S. science at the highest levels constructed and maintained a "scientific" case for racism over many decades by mainly innocent and not consciously contrived scientific charlataury. The ability to put aside cultural blinders is rare. And it appears that what money and power demand, science and technology will provide, however outrageous the end.
Mainstream history has also successfully put Black slavery and oppression in a tolerable light. A powerful article by the late Nathan I. Huggins, "The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative of American History, " in the Winter 1991 issue of the Radical History Review, shows well how the "master narrative" in historiography has normalized Black slavery and post-1865 racism. Slavery was a "tragic error" (like the Vietnam War), rather than a rational and institutional choice; it has been marginalized as an aside or tangent, rather than recognized as a central and integral feature of U.S. history; and it has been portrayed as an error in process of rectification in a progressive evolution, rather than a terrible permanent scar that helps explain the Southern Strategy, the current attack on affirmative action, and the enlarging Black ghetto disaster of today.
Profits end Jobs in Death
Normalization of the unthinkable comes easily when money, status, power, and jobs are at stake. Companies and workers can always be found to manufacture poison gases, napalm, or instruments of torture, and intellectuals will be dredged up to justify their production and use. The rationalizations are hoary with age: government knows best, ours is a strictly defensive effort, or, if it wasn't me somebody else would do it.
There is also the retreat to ignorance, real, cultivated, or feigned. Consumer ignorance of process is important. Dr. Samuel Johnson avowed that we would kill a cow rather than forego eating meat, but visits to slaughterhouses have made quite a few people into vegetarians. A cover story of Newsweek some years ago, illustrating U.S. consumption of meat by showing livestock walking into a human mouth, elicited many protests - people don't like to be reminded that steaks are obtained from slaughtered animals; they like to imagine that they are manufactured in factories, possibly out of biomass.
The bureaucratization of the use of animals for human ends is a large and controversial subject, but the potential for abuse is continuously realized as stock raisers, slaughterhouses, trappers, the Pentagon, the Animal Damage Control Agency, chemical, medical and cosmetic researchers, and academic entrepreneurs search for ways to improve the bottom line or fill in niches of "knowledge" that somebody will pay for.
At the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago there was a Head Injury Lab, funded by the government, in which baboons were subjected to head injuries in the alleged interest of helping us (i.e., creatures with souls, the culmination of the evolutionary process, and the realization of the purpose of the cosmos). The lab was invaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who among other things took away some records and films. The documentary which PETA made out of these materials, which showed these intelligent creatures having their heads smashed and rendered into zombies, also gave clear evidence that official rules of treatment of lab animals were violated, and, most important, that the participants' attitudes toward the animals were insensitive and ugly. It was not hard to think of death camps watching the documentary of this lab in action. Yet the scientific community at Penn not only defends the use of animals against outside critics with passion and apparent unanimity, but has never to my knowledge admitted in public that the Head Injury Lab got out of hand.
In building weapons, contractors and the Pentagon have become quite sophisticated in spreading business over many states, to reach a critical mass of jobs, profits and legislators/media by congressional district to maximize the lobbying base for funding. Jobs are jobs, whether building schools or Peacekeeper Missiles or cutting down thousand-year-old redwood trees.
I was slightly nauseated during the Vietnam War era by Boeing ads soliciting workers for its helicopter plant, touting itself as an "equal opportunity employer (EOE)." Maybe the Dachau camp management was also an EOE, for jobs that needed to be done and for which there was an effective demand.
Normalizing Shooting Human Fish in the Persian Gulf Barrel
In the Persian Gulf War of 1991 Uncle Sam was an EOE, and our boys and girls over there were doing their assigned jobs, repelling naked aggression in another Operation Just Cause. The war was forced upon us by Saddam Hussein's rejection of the UN's and "allies" insistence that he disgorge Kuwait, much as Bush "plainly" did not want war (Anthony Lewis).
Having made it Operation Just Cause No. 17, and a game with winners and losers, we could reasonably root for us - the moral force - to win.
We were also defending Kuwait, and if once again the party being "saved" was "destroyed," well, this was not our fault. Besides, there is the "principle," of non-aggression, to which we are utterly devoted.
The media could thus focus on our brave boys, girls, generals, and officials to tell us all about their plans, moves, reactions, and miscellaneous thoughts. We could watch them in action as they took off, landed, ate, joked, and expressed their feelings on the enemy, weather, and folks back home in the Big PX. They were part of an extended family, doing a dirty job, but with clean bombs and with the moral certainty of a just cause.
The point was not often made that the enemy was relatively defenseless, and in somewhat the same position as the "natives" colonized, exterminated, and enslaved by the West in past centuries by virtue of muskets and machine guns ... Our technical superiority reflected our moral superiority. If it all seemed like shooting human fish in a barrel, one must keep in mind that we were dealing with lesser creatures (grasshoppers, two-legged animals, cockroaches), people who don't value life as much as we do, who allowed "another Hitler" to rule over them, and who stood in our way.
One of the effects of high-tech warfare, as well as the exclusive focus on "our" casualties, plus censorship (official and self), is that the public is spared the sight of burning flesh. That enemy casualties were given great prominence during the Vietnam War is one of the great, and now institutionalized, myths of that era. Morley Safer's showing a GI applying a cigarette lighter to a Vietnamese thatched hut is used and referred to repeatedly as illustrating media boldness at that time because other cases would be hard to find. It caused CBS and Safer a lot of trouble (and he has been trying to make up for this sin ever since). Enormous government pressure and flak from other sources caused the media to provide grisly photos of enemy victims only with the greatest caution, and very infrequently, especially in light of the grisly reality. Capital intensive warfare in itself makes for distancing the public from the slaughter of mere gooks and Arabs. This is helpful in normalizing the unspeakable and unthinkable.
On February 5, 1991, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried an Associated Press dispatch by Alexander Higgins, "Marriage finds new expression in gulf: Honey, pass the bombs." It is a little romance of a newly married couple, located at an air base in Saudi Arabia-and therefore regrettably obliged to sleep in separate tents-whose function is to load bombs on A-10 attack jets. It is a personal interest story, of two people and their relationship, with a job to do, in an unromantic setting. A fine study in the routinization of violence, of the banality of evil and the ways it is impressed on the public.
Published by South End Press
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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