21st Century Turn of an Arendtian Phrase

“Memo to the next president” is the title of Los Angeles Times reporter Tim Rutten’s commentary about how hard it will be for the administration that takes office on January 20, 2009, to get the United States out of the complex mess that’s typically subsumed within the single word “Guantánamo” —how hard it will be, that is, for the United States to pull back from abusive rendition-and-detention-for-interrogation policies pursued since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and yet to work effectively to combat terrorism. Essential to Rutten’s exposé is a critique of “torture memos” like those discussed in posts here and here . He writes:

America’s version of banal evil lurks in the bloodless abstractions of mid-level lawyers, rather than in the gray efficiency of faceless bureaucrats.

The reference, of course, is to a term coined fully 45 years ago, in the trial reportage compiled into the book  Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil . As described in this post , Banality was philosopher Hannah Arendt ‘s account of that early effort by a nation-state, Israel, to prosecute an individual in its national courts for internationally condemned crimes. In describing actions “so obscene in their nature and consequences” as “’banal,’” it’s explained here , Arendt

meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi’s inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. …

For a time after 9/11, the use of words from a totalitarian past to describe the American present sparked instant controversy. Recall, for example, the furor in 2005 over Amnesty International’s characterization of detention practices as an “American gulag.” That harsh criticism now receives due consideration in the mainstream media—indeed, as in Rutten’s case, is set forth in the mainstream media—is an advance in our avowedly open society. But that there remains cause for that criticism is no advance at all.

Eradicating abusive policies and, at least as importantly, the institutional structures within which they found root, indeed must be a priority item on the next president’s to-do list.