Saturday, December 21, 2013

Donald Rumsfeld and the Banality of Evil

12/21/2013—Happy Winter solstice.

Back in August, I posted a blog about the new Hannah Arendt movie. I was considering in the blog the meaning of Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil, as applied to Adolph Eichmann.

Meanwhile, Mark Lilla has written in the New York Review of Books about the Arendt movie and about the possible meanings of Arendt's phrase "banality of evil." Lilla suggests that if Arendt had known about the committed nature of Eichmann's anti-Semitism, she might have hesitated to use the phrase in regard to him.

But I have a new candidate for the banality of evil: Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is the subject of a new movie by Errol Morris and has his own memoirs and is also the subject of the book by Bradley Graham. All of these things are brought together very well in a review by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books.

Rumsfeld comes across as a peculiar kind of fatalist. For example, in the movie, Morris confronts Rumsfeld with an authoritative report that establishes Rumsfeld's partial responsibility for the abusive behavior in questioning at Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld concedes the point. But he says nothing more about it. Morris then asks, "Are you saying stuff just happens?" Rumsfeld's response is telling: "well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn't been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn't occur."

So, nothing is anybody's fault. Things happen. Morris then asks the natural follow up question: "wouldn't it have been better not to go there at all?" And here again Rumsfeld responds with fatalism: "Well, I guess time will tell."

Danner claims that this is reminiscent of Nixon's passive statement, "mistakes were made." But truly Rumsfeld is far less willing to acknowledge responsibility then was Nixon. Nixon at least used the word, mistakes. A real person, whoever that might be, makes a mistake and we might find out who that was. But, if things just happen, there is no one to identify with what happened

This odd fatalism is quite different from the reaction of the Administration right after 9/11. A little fatalism might have been helpful at that point. Maybe Rumsfeld could've said then, well you know, things happen, bad things, when you're running an empire. Instead of fatalissm, we heard the language of absolute evil. That language went too far in the opposite direction. There was no sense of America's participation in a world that could seem so unjust to so many people.

At every point, Rumsfeld is silent about his own policies. At every point he professes surprise at what was done in his name. At every point he seems to have been the last to know what was going on. Even if all this was feigned, it gave an excellent imitation of what Arendt thought she heard from Adolf Eichmann.

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