The Banality of Preening

Suzanne Fields

5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal. Evil is fascinating, provocative and mind-focusing. Adolph Eichmann was probably a bore at a Nazi dinner party, a dull bureaucrat following orders, but his acts forever fascinate the human mind. We try but fail to understand how a fellow human could do what he did without conscience, without regret, without remorse.

What is banal is the moral preening of those who judge the way others stand up to evil, who judge those who compromise in their human fallibility to fight evil so that the rest of us can enjoy the good (and the good life). What's banal are the pundits and partisan ideologues who get their hands dirty only changing an ink cartridge but who seek revenge on others who, acting in good faith, did what they believed was right in thwarting evil. What's banal are those who round up the usual suspects from history, usually the cliched villains of Nazi Germany, and trot them out for comparison in show trials of their fantasies.

Shame requires that these moral purists make distinctions, sort of. "I know it's offensive to compare almost anything to the Nazis," writes Richard Cohen in The Washington Post, who proceeds to offend: "But the Bush-era memos struck me as echoes from the past." Mark McKeon, who prosecuted war criminals in Bosnia, concedes that the level of Republican crimes does not approach the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, but he would nevertheless punish "the most senior government officials responsible for (contemporary torture) crimes."

The debate is not one of good vs. evil, but of moral abstraction vs. grim reality. The debate has moved from saying that "torture is wrong" -- almost everybody agrees with that, in the abstract -- to seeking revenge against those falsely perceived as moral enemies in our midst. It's easy to scorn lawyers who abuse the right to sue, but making lawyers criminals for the advice they offer is alien to everything we are as Americans.

Defending certain rough interrogation techniques to squeeze evil men for information that could prevent catastrophe, at a time when everyone was terrified, was commonplace, driven by common sense. Thousands of Americans were regarded as at risk of mass murder by evil men plotting mayhem. But now that the risk is regarded as small, even as nonexistent by some, and the debate has moved away from preventing mass murder to punishing those who in a moment of national peril thought the best techniques were those that were necessary -- and legal.

What a difference eight years make. We forget the agony, the gruesome details of death in the Twin Towers, when hundreds of Americans faced the choice of jumping to their deaths or waiting to be burned alive or crushed under the weight of collapsing concrete. We all felt that "there but for the grace of God go I."

We've forgotten the sudden fear at the sound of an unexpected plane overhead (though New Yorkers felt a reprise of that terror this week when one of the president's planes flew low over lower Manhattan in a training exercise), of our suspicious glances at the "swarthy" man sitting next to us in a crowded theater, a sports arena or an outdoor concert. We've forgotten how eagerly we embraced the tedious obstacles to personal freedoms that we confront every time we board an airplane.

We forget how appreciative we were of George W. Bush that the outrages of human decency following 9-11 were not in New York or Washington but in Madrid and London. But it's not fashionable to remember all that this season. The absence of mayhem is just a happy coincidence.

Few of us concern ourselves with how this happened. We don't celebrate the illnesses we don't get. We usually appreciate the doctors who administer the vaccine. In the years following 9-11, faith in government "intelligence" was rewarded. We grew to put aside daily fears because we felt the men and women in charge really were in control. The intelligence agents were living up to their assignments. If "mistakes were made," as the passive voice addresses uncomfortable facts, we stopped making them. They're behind us now.

President Obama was right when he announced to the CIA that he wouldn't punish those who followed "Bush administration guidelines." He was right when he said he wouldn't look back in anger at the Bush administration officials who approved of "enhanced interrogation," that "this is not the time for retribution." We hope the president remembers that there's nothing banal about keeping your word.