Friday, February 04, 2005

"Little Eichmanns" - Part IV

There is on the Web a site devoted to photographs taken by American soldiers in Iraq. I know the site and have seen the pictures. I have not the slightest intention of directing you to them.

Some of the pictures record breath-taking sunsets. Others show ornate buildings in Iraqi cities. Still others depict spectacular explosions, including one which produced a gigantic smoke ring that lingered in the air for five full minutes, according to the caption. About sixty photos are snapshots of Iraqi dead: sometimes intact bodies but often just body parts: a leg in the middle of a street, a decapitated head with a hunk of red meat attached to it. The soldiers who send in the photos also send in captions, most of them rather pathetic attempts at black humor.

A Bradley armored fighting vehicle whose forward armor is bathed in blood. The caption reads, "Every time I wash this thing . . ."

A second shot of the same Bradley: "10 points for every pun-jab you hit."

A corpse with part of his face shot away: "Come on in and give me some sugar."

Three or four bodies--it's hard to be sure--evidently in the back of an AFV: "Damer [i.e., Jeffrey Dahmer] buffet."

A bloated corpse: "Does this death make me look fat?"

These photos have outraged people in the Arab world, and there are at least two sites, written in several languages, devoted to exposing and denouncing them. I looked today expecting to find the photos gone. They are still there.

Is this evil? Probably not in Scott Peck's definition of the term, and not evil in my view either. Horrendously bad taste, yes. Disgusting. Appalling. But not evil. You get the impression these guys know that what they're doing is wrong and they're doing it anyway like naughty schoolboys, on the overt excuse that war is an "otherworldly experience," to quote the site, and most likely as a way to distance themselves from the awareness that the same thing could happen to their own bodies.

No, I would argue that the evil lies rather in that aspect of a society which can send young people to war while not acknowledging that the kind of moral coarsening and degradation remarked above is a common experience in war.

There is a difference between playing in filth and being unable to acknowledge that one is filthy. This, I think, gets at the basic nature of evil.

According to Scott Peck, few individuals are evil in the clinical sense which he proposes: people who use political power--power over others--in order to avoid spiritual growth. Such people correspond in most respects to what Hannah Arendt fanously termed "the banality of evil."

There was, for example, a couple who were stalwarts at their church and who came to see Peck when he was treating their son for depression. The couple's other son had shot himself to death several months before. In one of Peck's sessions with the surviving son, he discovered that for Christmas the youth's parents had given him a rifle. Not just any rifle, either: they had wrapped up and given him the same weapon with which his brother had ended his life. The son could discern the implicit message that his parents wanted him dead, but the parents themselves were oblivious to this. Peck could not even make them recognize that their choice of gift was even inappropriate.

Evil people are not psychopaths, Peck writes. "Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little--including their own criminality. They seem to be as happy inside a jail as out. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as 'moral imbeciles,' and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern."

By contrast, evil people are consumed by the need to appear normal. "While they seem to lack any motivation to be good," Peck notes, "they intensely desire to appear good. Their 'goodness' is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. That is why they are 'the people of the lie.'"

This is a paradox, Peck continues. On the one hand, evil people consciously feel themselves to be perfect. On the other, "I think they have an unacknowledged sense of their own evil nature. Indeed, it is this very sense from which they are frantically trying to flee. The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. . . . We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves."

Because this is an informal essay, I will now take a bit of a leap, though I can circle back in a future revision and deal with this part of things more systematically. Comparatively few individuals are evil--Peck believes the percentage to be a tiny fraction of all people. It should be obvious, therefore, that Ward Churchill's portrayal of those who worked in the twin towers as being evil is, at best, rather slipshod.

In the passage of his essay that has caused most of the furor, he writes:

They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.

I want to accept, provisionally and for the sake of discussion, Churchill's contention that our society exports death and suffering on a scale more or less comparable to the Holocaust. Let's say that this is so. His portrayal of the Towers work force is slipshod because he implies that, but for their "braying," they might have seen the destructive ultimate consequences of the political economic enterprise they served. This I highly doubt. He seems to argue that societal blindness toward the harm it does is simply the sum of many individual acts of blindness--or that the WTC victims were unusual among Americans in their blindness.

I think Reinhold Niebuhr's formulation is more nearly accurate: that people in groups display a lower degree of moral competence than people do as individuals. This is the basic perspective that informs Scott Peck's discussion of My Lai. I will talk more about that in Part V. For now, it is enough to note that these supposedly evil people spent their final moments on earth helping one another to escape the smoke and flames, that they called their families to tell them that they loved them and to leave a final good bye, and that in at least one instance they leaped from the flaming building to their deaths, hand in hand.

I will add, moreover, that I can see no difference between the pool of Americans who occupied the Towers that morning and the pool of Americans aboard United Flight 93, who spent the final moments of their own lives engaged in a determined struggle to save hundreds, possibly thousands, of other human beings.

If evil is at work here, if the analogy of "little Eichmanns" holds, it must be in some other sense.

In my next installment--which I doubt you'll see before tomorrow--I want to suggest that if the analogy can be made to hold, the explanation lies, first, in the reduced moral competence of large groups of people compared to individuals; second, in a culture that Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism; and finally, in what sociologist Peter Berger termed the "pluralization of social life-worlds" characteristic of modern life, or, to frame the same basic idea a bit differently, in what Richard Rubenstein called the bureaucratization of modern life.

Continue to Part V


Anonymous said...

There is a saying out there to the effect that it is often easier to take the soldier out of the war than it is to take the war out of the soldier. I don't know if this is true in most or even many cases, but I sense it is true in at least a few instances.


Mondo said...

Mr. Churchill is one thing, but I will comment on the mars soldiers photos. I truely believe Gary Webb, who was found dead with TWO bullets in the head of an apparent suicide two months ago, was on to the probable reason bigtime. The reason why our soldiers have become so brutal and desensitized. His last story was about how the US military has dumped tens of millions of dollars into tracking people on online 1st person video games. Remember this is the age of multi billion dollar 1st person shooter video games that has surpassed even the movie industry in revenue. If you've ever played these games, you know what I'm talking about. Here's the link... The Killing Game