Monday, April 20, 2009

The Banality of Evil: It Could Happen in America

I recently had lunch in a restaurant and started chatting with three women near my table. I ordered too much food and offered them some of mine, and they invited me to sit with them. After they found out I was a lawyer, they asked me some questions about a fire in their apartment, and I tried to help them out. (They did not have renters' insurance.) At some point, the conversation moved into religion after they asked about my ethnicity.

I know lots of Mormons, lots of Catholics, and lots of people of other faiths who take their religion seriously. I may not agree with everything my friends say, but I respect their beliefs. I am very thankful to live in a country where reasonable people can agree to disagree, and where I can ignore ignorant bombasts. I've never had substantive discussions with fundamentalist Christians before, and after some time, it became apparent all three women were very conservative and very religious Republicans.

These women looked like your average Californians. One was 22 years old, half-white, half-Mexican, and had some streaks of red dyed into her hair. The other was a 26 years old light-skinned African-American. Her father was a pastor. The last woman was a 30 years old Jamaican-American married to a Laotian with a 8 years old daughter. As far as Americans go, this was a pretty diverse group of people.

We talked about George W. Bush, and all three of them liked him. They said you could not blame all of America's problems on one man. I agreed, saying that it was the entire Bush administration that created major problems, including unnecessarily invading Iraq. (I should have mentioned the compliant Democrats, too.) They said they supported President Obama, and even though they did not vote for him, he was now their president and they would try to support him, too. I thought their attitude was very honorable.

On Iraq, I said it was tragic that 100,000 innocent civilians and 3000+ Americans had died. The women responded that Iraq was not a mistake. I confirmed that they understood Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Trying to come to a middle ground, I said that perhaps at the time of the invasion, some evidence justified going into the country, but now, it's clear Iraq was never a threat to us. Assuming the only justified war is a defensive war based on defending your people and your country, the Iraq war was unjustified. I asked them again if they agreed invading Iraq was a mistake, based on current information. They still said Iraq was not a mistake.

I then said the war created more enemies. When an errant missile blows up your village, are you going to be pro-American or anti-American? In response to this, one of the women told me, "Why are you hating America? You're here now." I was stunned. I knew some people equated patriotism with total acceptance of everything about one's country, good or bad, but I didn't realize how ingrained this blind allegiance could be. I also didn't realize how many Americans felt that any dissent was somehow unAmerican. It is useful to remind ourselves that America's founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was an act of dissent against America's occupiers, the British.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, said the following:

What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?

Most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one’s country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former, because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries.

John Adams, if alive today, might have said the following about President G.W. Bush:

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

Alexander Hamilton, on fighting against one's own government (Hamilton is arguing for federalism, but he implicitly accepts the notion that Americans can use self-defense against their own government when it betrays them):

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.

In short, dissent is American--blind patriotism is not.

On invading Iraq, the women said that we went there to help them. "They [Iraqis] asked for our help." Again, I was stunned. I thought we invaded Iraq to protect Americans from being attacked on American soil and to force the terrorists to fight "over there." In other words, assuming a finite number of terrorists, if we concentrated the war against them in the Middle East, they would have to expend resources fighting there and would be diverted from spending time plotting against Americans on American soil. No one said anything in response. I had in front of me three normally functioning people who believed that causing the deaths of 100,000+ civilians was our way of helping the Iraqis, and also, that they had asked for it.

The only time I got their attention was when I mentioned the 3000+ Americans who died. I told them why they would want to put Americans' lives at risk when it was clear now Iraq was never a threat to Americans. 100,000+ human beings didn't seem human to them because they lived in a different place, spoke a different language, and believed in a different religion--but mentioning 3000+ Americans made the death toll seem more real to them.

I tried a different approach: I asked them if they had to do it all over again, knowing what they know now, would they still have invaded Iraq? I was essentially asking them whether they'd save the lives of 3000+ Americans and 100,000+ Iraqis. After all, we know now that neither Iraqis nor Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America. We know now that the war cost trillions of unnecessary dollars, which has reduced our ability to fight the current recession. The women said they would go to war again if given the chance.

That's when it hit me: normal people will believe and do terrible things, as long as they don't see the direct consequences of their beliefs. Like Germans in 1941 who silently accepted their government's gassing of millions of Jews, my American Christian companions believed that their government was doing the right thing to protect them. Most Germans never saw someone getting gassed and then having their teeth pulled. Most Americans have never seen a bomb land on a village, causing a child's family to be wiped out, severed limbs falling everywhere. It's almost like death has become so routine, our brains digest images as if they were from a Hollywood film (with a happy ending, of course). Even thinking about severed children's limbs, I think of an American film, and then of a PBS documentary showing dead children. Even in my own mind, an imaginary death takes precedence over real ones. So when I mentioned a child dying to my lunch companion, she immediately had to block the image by changing the subject into whether I loved America. The real image interfered with her idea of being involved in a just war. It was her own self-defense mechanism.

Blind patriotism makes no room for mistakes--these women were convinced that our country could do no wrong. After the WMD argument was destroyed and the connection to 9/11 absent--what else could they think of to justify their support of the war, but to assign an altruistic motive to the deaths of 3000+ Americans and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians? Their limited viewpoint--the one where 100,000 people were too far away to be real, and yet real enough to ask for "help"--could not handle any unfavorable information. Their mental paradigm required them to believe that their government, as an extension of themselves, was unable to do anything wrong. I've concluded that the most dangerous people are blind patriots. Whenever you refuse to call the unnecessary deaths of 103,000+ human beings a mistake, there is evil there somewhere. And it's utterly, tragically banal.

After my conversation with these women was finished and they had left, another woman told me she had overheard our conversation. Years ago, she had been in a U.N. refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. In the camp she was in, Thai troops would come and shoot anyone who didn't have an ID. With only three or four U.N. personnel there to supervise the camp, these executions occurred on a more than rare basis.

She said that some Americans don't get it. The U.S. military, during Nixon's time, bombed Cambodia, which led to the Khmer Rouge, the opposition political party, becoming popular and gaining power (A similar course of events happened with the Nazi Party in Germany). See "Operation Menu," Nixon's 1969-1973 bombing campaign. As we now know, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge wiped out Cambodia, which, up to that point, had been a peaceful nation for centuries. Like the Iraqis, the U.S. government saw the people of Cambodia as nothing more than faceless pawns in a grander scheme. I am sure the American government wanted to help Cambodians, too.

Few people will kill another human being without some kind of greater ideal at work; however, it is the duty of responsible, educated people to remember the ravages of war and to demand that an actual threat exists before advocating war. Americans used to be responsible. When we found out about Nixon's bombing campaign, which killed 100,000+ Cambodians, protests broke out all over America's college campuses. College students died at Kent State. Even Congress acted, passing the Cooper-Church Amendment, which was supposed to limit Nixon's activities. (It did not. Like Bush II, Nixon did what he wanted to do, critics and other government branches be damned.)

Today, Americans have either forgotten history or are willfully ignoring it. My three companions, like the young students in the 1960's, should have been protesting the war once they realized Iraq posed little threat to the United States. Yet, even with the benefit of hindsight, they are willing to allow the deaths of 100,000+ civilians and 3000+ American soldiers. These are normal, sane Americans. They go to church, believe in God, and have families. They will not commit any crimes. They are some of the most dangerous people in America today.

We are so fortunate to live in a country with two vast oceans to protect us against invasion and with two allies as neighbors. We should not spoil our good fortune by allowing average or bloodthirsty Americans to dictate foreign policy. The reality of war--with its torn limbs, dead dreams, and dead bodies--will never fully register as long as most Americans continue to view executions on a big screen instead of next door. Our fortunate distance between death and reality should cause us to be more, not less, wary whenever our leaders argue that 100 or 100,000+ people need to die so that we can be safe.

Furthermore, it is every non-native American's duty to try to interact more with native-born Americans in a respectful manner. Most Americans have not traveled outside of North America. Therefore, the only avenue most Americans have to interact with other cultures is through non-native American residents. It is our duty to try to humanize other cultures for native-born Americans. It is our duty to reach out. It is our duty not to be banal.

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder. -- Arnold J. Toynbee

Bonus: more here

1 comment:

Mani Devaj said...

Your experience is not unusual, there are those that believe that even listening or reading religious books of other religions is blasphemy.
I ran into supporters of Pat Robertsen when he was running for President and when I suggested that they read the Quran, they reacted as if I had asked them to drink poison.
What Americans have to watch out for is the growth of the "American Churcharassa" and be really concerned with the failure of the American public school system.
The extremism in Pakistan flourishes because of the failure or non-existence of Pakistan's public school system. The poor have no schools to send their kids to so they end up in Madrassas. The American public schools system is also failing. While the rich can afford to send their kids to secular private (expensive) schools, others end up home schooling (homerassas?) and sending them to religious schools and camps, hence the growth of the churchrassas.
If this trend continues (and the support for Bush and the nonsense prevailing on Fox are evidence of how far it has already gone) than we can forsee a divided American civil society turning further toward extremism. An extremismm that for now is expressed in a democratic way, but will take on a violent outlook.