The banality of evil

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to capture the sheer horror of someone like Adolf Eichmann, who carried out his executions of the Jews in the same way that another government functionary would file tax forms, distribute zoning permits, or even hand out railroad tickets, accepting the validity and normality of every dictate of the state.

This is precisely the phrase that came to my mind while listening to last week's two-part NPRinterview of John Rizzo, who is flogging a book based on his experience as the interim general counsel for the CIA during the torture years. (No, not linking to the book here. If you want to pay him for approving of torture you can find it yourself.)

Rizzo is clearly not a fanatic, but the interview makes clear that he had no difficulty accepting the premise that the government was essentially permitted to do whatever it wanted to extract information from those it held captive.

Rizzo even clings to the tired line that waterboarding isn't torture.

 I'm a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded — or, more importantly, if the Justice Department had concluded — that these techniques constitute torture, we would never have done them. So I can't say they were torture. I didn't concede it was torture then, and I don't concede that it's torture now.

 He's right, it is defined in U.S. law. Here's one definition I found: 

As used in this chapter—

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

. . . 

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality . . . 

 Guess what: this is exactly what waterboarding is. It isn't simulated drowning, or giving the victim the impression that he is drowning. No, it is subjecting him to drowning, only to rescue him before he succumbs. It absolutely carries with it the threat of imminent death, the suggestion that if he does not cooperate the torturer will eventually decide not to stop pouring the water over him but continue until he can no longer breathe.

I don't expect Rizzo to ever face ethical or disciplinary charges for presiding over torture by the CIA, but if he does I am pretty sure I know what his defense will be.

“I was only following orders.” 

5 thoughts on “The banality of evil

  1. of his “humble origins.”  The WP has a very different idea of “humble” from me.

    They report that his father was a department store executive and that JR was the first person in his family to go to an Ivy League School (Brown).

    Sounds to me pretty much like he had the family sterling lodged firmly up his derrier, and “humility” was probably never required of him.

    This might begin to explain why he and I seem to have grown up in parallel but opposite universes.

    Everyone that I can think of from my generation had a pretty firm grasp of the concept of torture.  We heard our parents and grandparents talking about the horrors of the Second World War and understood in our marrow that we could not even imagine how bad some of their experiences had been.  

    There were definite lines defining human decency that were crisp and fresh and indisputable even to the youngest of us.

    Mr. Rizzo’s somewhat cavalier ability to parse the concept of torture suggests that his family has long been spared any first hand experience.

  2. that this guy isn’t in danger of being kidnapped and brought before an international tribunal to stand trial, Nurnberg style, in an international court for war crimes.  

  3. “So I can’t say they were torture. I didn’t concede it was torture then, and I don’t concede that it’s torture now.”

    Waterboarding has always, and only ever been, torture.  For this criminal, John Rizzo, to claim that it’s suddenly not now torture just because the USA is doing it means that he is knowingly lying about his criminal activities.

    He is claiming that he is unaware that the USA hanged officers from Japan and Germany during and after WWII for performing exactly the same forms of torture that Rizzo so enjoyed approving.

    If Rizzo is going to continue extolling the virtues of torture and how much he enjoyed it, he – and the US Government – should issue formal apologies to the families of German and Japanese officers that the US hanged, because he is saying that the USA was on the wrong side during WWII.

  4. If anyone here at this discussion has not seen the remarkable movie by Margaretha von Trotta, “Hannah Arendt,” which deals just that trip Arendt took to witness the Eichmann trial — I can’t recommend it highly enough. The long article in the New Yorker she wrote after her experience there was eventually expanded into the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

    Most remarkable are selections from the hundreds of hours of high quality film produced by the Israeli court of Eichmann’s testimony which von Trotta was able to put her hands on…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *