Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Monday, April 27, 2009

On The Banality of Evil

Playing in the background: The merry sound of Chuzzles exploding

This is my aunt Betty's fault. She sent me a column today by Frank Rich, the brilliant New York Times op-ed guy who has recently riffed on such things as gay marriage in Iowa and the toxic legacy of the housing bubble. The column is about the White House memos on torture, or "harsh interrogations," or whatever else you want to call the horrific stuff that went on at Abu Ghirab and Guantanamo paid for by your tax dollars and performed by people who claimed to be protecting you. Thanks, guys. Really, I feel so much safer now.

It also mentions the Columbine shooters. A new book, "Columbine," talks about the shootings in Littleton, Colorado that left 13 people dead and a bunch of others hurt and also spawned national myths. Among them: The shooters were high-school outcasts who were picked on by other kids and were taking revenge. The shooters were part of a gang called the "Trench Coat Mafia." The shooters targeted Christian kids, asked them if they believed in God, and shot them if they said "Yes." Guess what? None of that is true. Rich opines that even though these myths have been debunked, people still believe them because we don't want the bad guys to be us. We want 'em to be them, those other guys, that Trench Coat Mafia, those outcasts, “a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values" (ex-prez Bush Jr.).

I'm amazed that we haven't gotten over this yet. Any human being capable of great good works is capable of great evil. That just sort of stands to reason. And the reverse. People aren't good or evil. We're just people. We get to choose, every day, if we're going to be good or evil, if we're gonna do the right thing or the easy thing, if we're gonna help somebody or cause him/her harm.

Every time I bring this up I get yelled at, but here goes anyway: Germany, 1930s. Is it possible that every single citizen in the entire country was morally depraved? That they let the Nazis take power because they were the equivalent of bloodthirsty zombies and they had this mad burning desire to kill, loot, rape and brutalize as many of their neighbors as they possibly could? Er, no. Not so much. This is the same country that brought us Bach, Handel and Beethoven, the Gutenberg Bible, the Gramophon (primitive iPod), the first programmable computer and the MP3 (used on the modern iPod). Does it make any logical sense to call all Germans inherently evil? Or inherently noble? Course not. Like all other human beings everywhere, they're capable of both.

A lot of ordinary German citizens who might have been able to do something to stop the Nazi machine looked the other way during the 1930s, but then, so did most of the rest of the planet, including the United States. Case in point: A John Wayne movie called Three Faces West (also released as The Refugee). In this movie, a bunch of North Dakota townsfolk are heading west (to Oregon, I think) to establish a new town. On the way, they're joined by a refugee Viennese doctor and his daughter. We hear that the doctor was fleeing from the Nazis, but not why. The movie also manages to skip over the whole part where the doctor is obviously Jewish because, of course, if he is then John Wayne can't fall in love with his daughter. The movie was released in 1940, and a more masterful work of deliberate international obtuseness I have not yet found. Does that make John Wayne evil? MGM Studios? Vienna?

Anybody capable of great evil is also capable of great love and compassion. Now here's where I really get yelled at. Hitler, in his early youth, was a victim of fairly horrific child abuse. As a young man, though, he became a pretty decent painter, he had a girlfriend, and he probably just would have been a regular guy if certain things hadn't happened along the way. There was a TV miniseries about this a few years ago and it got slammed by all kinds of reviewers and groups as being "too sympathetic" to Hitler. Being sympathetic to bad guys, especially Hitler, is Just Wrong. Back in 2008, 44% of Americans said they had no problem with torturing terrorist suspects and many even opined that such behavior should be encouraged. Why not? The terrorists are the bad guys. Being sympathetic to bad guys, especially terrorists, is Just Wrong. (I dunno about you, but I wouldn't want to run into that 44% of Americans in a dark alley. Seriously, that could get scary.) But, if it is wrong, then it's okay to feel sorry for the "few American troops who dishonored our country" since they were, after all, just young kids doing a very hard job in a dangerous place. Until they become the bad guys. And then what the hell do we do?

Unfortunately, it wasn't just a few American troops. It was national security advisors at very high levels. It was graduates of Harvard, it was Condi Rice for God's sake. It was people that most folks respect. And here's what I can't figure out. We don't want the torturers to be the good guys, the national security advisers, the Condi Rices of the world, because that would screw up our view of them as being inherently noble.

Bad examples? Okay, let's talk about my grandfather. By all accounts he was Not A Very Nice Guy to members of his family. He was an Army surgeon during WWII and came back to the States with a major case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He never got over it (never even knew what it was, in all probability), and yeah, definitely abused his wife and kids and became a chronic alcoholic. Yet, he also founded a medical clinic in this tiny town in North Dakota and brought quality medical care to an area that basically hadn't had any, ever. He treated people who couldn't pay, people who paid with chickens or other livestock even though he lived in town and had no place to put them, went into debt on a number of occasions to keep the clinic going when times were hard, and still managed somehow to put four sons through college.

So was he noble or was he an asshole? How truly annoying that we can't pigeonhole him, especially now that he's deceased. Likewise the national security advisers and the few American troops and the terrorists and Hitler and the people of 1930s Germany and Bach and Gutenberg and Condi Rice. To quote Jimmy Stewart (and I never get tired of quoting Jimmy Stewart), "I don't know what you think of the so-called rabble, Mr. Potter, but they do most of the working and playing and living and dying in this town." They also do most of the good, and most of the evil, and as Lars von Trier says, you gotta take one with the other.


Alis said...

Yes. Quite. Exactly. Great post!

Jen said...

Hi Alis,


(No one's yelled at me yet. That's odd...)