The detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba hangs over the United States and now the Obama administration like a cloud of acid rain. In recent months hunger strikes once again have brought the injustice of the camp, the inhumane treatment of its inhabitants, and the indefinite detention of its inmates to the attention of the world. The camp is now an indelible blot on the United States, both on our reputation abroad, as well as upon our self-image as a land of constitutional republicanism. Above all it is a meaningful challenge to our self-respect.
Most of the 779 people that Wikipedia says were brought to Guantanamo were never charged with a crime. Of the fewer than 200 who remain, some no doubt are terrorists and criminals; others, equally as clearly, were unjustly captured, imprisoned, tortured. They are now being held outside rules of law and in violation of our legal and constitutional traditions of freedom. No doubt there are inconvenient questions about what to do with these men. But they are men under our collective care and they are owed more than being kept like animals in pens in purgatory.
President Obama has announced once again his decision to close the camp. We wish him the courage to do what is right. At this moment, it is worth recalling the case of Mohammed Jawad, the first Guantanamo detainee to testify under oath and to a military commission about being tortured by his American captors. Last month there was a dramatic reading of statements made by Jawad's lawyer, David Frakt, juxtaposed with statements made by the case's lead prosecutor, Darrel Vandeveld who left the military in order to help free Jawad. The reading was held at the Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature. In their statements, both men use the language of Constitutionality to suggest that, by torturing detainees such as Jawad, "America," as Frakt puts it, "lost a little of its greatness."
Here is what Vandeveld, a lifelong military man, writes of his choice to testify in favor of Jawad:
In 2007, I volunteered to prosecute detainees at Guantanamo in the U.S. military commissions. I was assigned as the lead prosecutor in several cases, including the case of Mohammed Jawad, a young man from Afghanistan. While I was a prosecutor, David Frakt helped me to find and expose gross human rights abuses of Mohammed and other detainees by the U.S. government. In September 2008, I became convinced that the prosecution of Mohammed was unjust and that the military commissions were grossly flawed. I requested to be relieved and reassigned to other duties. After stepping down from the prosecution, I worked with David Frakt to expose detainee abuse, to secure Mohammed’s release and bring about much-needed reforms to the U.S. military commissions.
Vandeveld served 24 years in the army, winning a bronze star for valor in Iraq. After his service he went to law school and became a military lawyer. His decision to ask to be relieved from his prosecution duties was, he writes, simply doing his duty: “I did it because I believe in truth, justice, the rule of law, and our common humanity. I did it for Mohammed Jawad, I did it because it was my duty, and I did it for us all.”
As the debate about closing Guantanamo heats up, this is a good time to acquaint oneself with the case of Mohammed Jawad. The transcript from the staged discussion between David Frakt and Darrel Vandeveld is a good place to begin. We are all indebted to The Mantle for publishing it. It is your weekend read.
When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
“All thought arises out of experience, but no thought yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
- Hannah Arendt, Thinking
In the wake of an extraordinarily brutal punctuation to an extraordinarily brutal year of gun violence in the United States and across the continent, the eye of American politics has finally turned back toward something it perhaps ought never have left, the problem in this country of the private ownership of the means to commit extraordinary brutality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public discourse around the problem has descended nearly instantaneously from fractiousness into what could now only generously be termed playground name-calling (to spend millions of dollars to publicly call one’s opponent an “elitist hypocrite” should feel extraordinary, even if it doesn’t). There are many tempting culprits to blame for this fall. The actors, of course, include some powerful players whose opposing ideologies so deeply inflect their understanding of the situation that it is entirely uncertain whether they are in fact seeing the same world, let alone the same problem within it. There is the stage on which the actors play, a largely national media structure whose voracious demands can be fed most easily, if not most effectively, by those who seek the currency of political power in hyperbole and absoluteness of conviction. Finally, there is the problem of constructing the problem itself: is it clear that private ownership of the means of extraordinary violence is so distinct a problem from that of its public ownership and (borderless) use? Can the line of acceptability between means of extraordinary brutality really be settled by types of implements, let alone the number of bullets in a magazine? What are the connections and disconnections between the events – Oak Creek, Chicago, Newtown,… – that have summoned the problem back onto our collective stage, and why had the problem disappeared in the first place when the violence so demonstrably had not? There is something in all of these instincts, but before we rush to decry our national theater (more Mamet than melodrama), it’s worth remembering that the problem is an extraordinary one, and that many of the pathologies of our various reactions to it spring from the same seed as our best resources: the nature of thinking itself.
The rhetoric used in describing the problem of gun violence – formulated so readily and so intractably – coupled with the unavoidable connection of the problem with intense emotion make it tempting to suspect one’s political opponents in this arena of ceasing to think altogether. I will admit to sometimes being convinced that there was no thought at all behind some of the words being splayed across television screens and RSS feeds (not, it should be said, entirely without reason). Arendt, in Thinking, describes thinking and feeling as inherently mutually antagonistic, and whether or not that is true it certainly seems that the tenor and pitch of the vitriol make thinking, let alone conversing, difficult. But that may point to a reality still more sobering than the perennially (and maybe banally) true observation that a great deal of what passes for public discourse did not require serious thought in its formulation: that when we deal with certain kinds of events, and try to engage in the process of translating them and reconstructing them into the form of a problem, we are running up against dimensions of the human experience so extraordinary that they shove us flatly against the limits of what we are able to do in thought. Perhaps the struggle now is less against a chronic inability to think, and more with recognizing the ways in which the limits of how we can feel and see and know – and then think – have created limits not just to how we can understand the problem, but to how we can understand each others’ responses to it.
One permanent refrain in this debate is the culpability of violent media in generating cultures in which, it is said, such extraordinary brutality becomes possible (ignoring, it might be objected, that humankind has shown a rather vibrant aptitude for brutality for quite some time). The newest variation on this theme, which in structure has changed little since its revival by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker in the 1980s, is that violent video games, by wedding the sensation of the rapid pleasures of accomplishment unique to video games with a sense of agency in apparent violence have created a generation desensitized not just to images of extraordinary violence, but to the prospect of committing it oneself. A friend of mine who has good reason to be sensitive was so infuriated at the NRA’s release of a mobile app promoting “responsible gun use” one month to the day after the Newtown shootings that he couldn’t eat for several days.
If it is possible to set aside questions of titanically poor taste and worse (and its not clear that we should), there is something about this way of thinking about the problem of violent imaginaries that reflects what I am suggesting is an issue of pathologies arising from mental necessities.
There is little use denying that being intensively immersed in gaming environments (any gaming environments, and not just violent electronic ones) for extended periods of time can seriously, if usually temporarily, alter a person’s phenomenal experience of their own agency and the realness of the world around them (I confess this as a recovering Sid Meier enthusiast myself). But the concept of de-sensitization is a difficult one in particular because, as Arendt points out, de-sensitization is precisely what thought does, and must do to carry out its work. Nowhere is this more clear than in those cases in which we are confronted with events that seriously strain the possibility of thinking about them at all.
Thinking about tragedies involves a twin process that need not, and should not, lessen the experience of their terribleness…but it always can. That twin process, as Arendt describes it, is one of de-sensation and re-sensation. When we try to think about what has occur, we have to call it up, we reproduce it “by repeating in [our] imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses.” In remembering, we convert the data of our senses, including our common sense, into objects of thought. We do that in order to make them fit for the preoccupation of thought, our “quest for meaning;” in other words, re-sensation, the process of translation into narrative and metaphor by which facts become truths.
It’s not difficult to see how extraordinary brutality challenges this double operation to the point of impossibility. On the one hand, this model of de-sensation by the reproductive imagination presumes a kind of voluntarism to the recollection, when often, and most especially in the cases like those of immediate victims where the stakes are highest, recollection comes unbidden, and far from de-sensing involves the cruel and incessant reiteration of sense that is renewed in all of its thought-destroying power. On the other hand, extraordinary brutality by its very nature resists re-sensation in proportion to its extraordinariness: to read the trial of Anders Breivik, for example, is to watch a play of the utter failure of not only the killer’s own efforts at narrative, but those of every single speaking person involved. It is not a surprise that these trials test the law’s own limited strictures of re-sensation to the breaking point, which often comes as nothing more than quiet acquittal (as with Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, in whose case international law was forced to confess the inadequacy of its categories).
What’s more difficult to see is how that terrible challenge presented by extraordinary brutality to our very capacity to think is simultaneously a challenge to our politics, one perhaps graver still for our hope, as Arendt puts it in her Denktagebuch, to share a world with those with whom we must live. Extraordinary brutality makes a shamble of our narrating powers, and the failures of others to make sense of it which incite our scorn – as when, I will admit, even as someone who grew up in a gun culture, I literally cannot make sense of the suggestion that high-capacity magazines would be better combated by their increased prevalence in the school environment itself – are no less replicated by our own attempts, whether or not we can see and admit it. Imagination’s other function, its most political function for Arendt, is to put ourselves in the place of others in order to more fully see the political world that confronts us. If this is true, then it is not our capacity to put ourselves in the place of a killer that most threatens our political capacity to respond, whatever the prevalence of this problem in popular discourse. This may often be an impossibility, but the stakes are much lower than that of the impossibility of putting ourselves in the places of others who are also trying – and like us mostly failing – to respond. In trying and failing to renarrate tragedy in order to construct political problems and solutions, we come up against the limits of our imaginations, limits are themselves defined by the bounds of our prior experiences and our thought itself. When it comes to the world of the gun (and here, I can only urge a look at the truly remarkable The Language of the Gun), we are running up against the reality that contemporary American polity covers experiences of the world divergent to such an extreme – how much, in terms of sensory experience in their personal history do David Keene and Alan Padilla share, really? – that answers truly are being constructed from worlds which, in the senses that matter to policymaking, don’t overlap. And in an environment where that is true, the first, most critical order must be the one that is neglected most: not to analyze why our competing solutions are right or wrong, but to understand why the solutions we are proposing arise from the experiences of the world we have had, including our experiences of the tragedies we cannot re-sense.
Responses cannot be crafted out of worlds that are not shared, and tending to the former requires a kind of tending to the latter that we see vanishingly rarely, thought the torch still carried by a few radio producers and documentary filmmakers. Absent that kind of dedicated world-making – and perhaps that process requires a time and restraint that too is threatened by extraordinary brutality – we will simply be left with what we have, an issue politics without common sense because the only sense that is common, the event, is insensible. When they respond in ways we cannot abide, understanding our political others is an almost impossibly difficult task. It is also one that a polity cannot possibly do without.
There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.
This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.
If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.
On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.
This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.
You can listen to the excerpt here.
"While lack of political sense and persistence in the obsolete system of making charity the basis of national unity have prevented the Jewish people from taking a positive part in the political life of our day, these very qualities, translated into dramatic forms, have inspired one of the most singular products of modern art—the films of Charlie Chaplin. In Chaplin the most unpopular people in the world inspired what was long the most popular of contemporary figures—not because he was a modern Merry Andrew, but because he represented the revival of a quality long thought to have been killed by a century of class conflict, namely, the entrancing charm of the little people."
-Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition" (1944)
The image of Charlie Chaplin's signature character, the Little Tramp, is an icon recognized throughout the world, one that remains powerful where those of his contemporaries, for example his partners in United Artists, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., have faded from popular consciousness. Moreover, Chaplin is widely recognized for his comedic brilliance, and beyond that, for his artistic genius as an actor, director and composer. Largely forgotten within the public mind, however, is the close association between Chaplin and Jewish identity, regarding both the actor and the character he portrayed. But to early 20th century audiences in the United States and Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the Little Tramp was recognized as a Jewish character type, a popular culture stereotype with origins in the 19th century, a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and (dare I say it?) modern times. Regarding himself, Chaplin never corrected misconceptions about his gentile ancestry, saying that to do so would "play directly into the hands of anti-Semites," while also taking pride in the fact that one of his great grandmothers was a Romani (aka Gypsy), and more generally he was outspoken in defense of all of the little people, the lower classes, the poor and the downtrodden. On the big screen, he was the Little Tramp, but in real life, as a human person and a champion of the humane and the humanistic, he was a giant.
Hannah Arendt identifies Chaplin's Little Tramp as something more than a Merry Andrew or clown, but as an example of a specific character type she refers to as the Jew as pariah. The term pariah is typically defined as outcast, which carries a more negative connotation than that of exile. Exile, in turn, is a status long associated with the Jewish people in particular, but today incorporated into the broader, and more neutral category of diaspora. As a wanderer,sojourner, or immigrant, the outcast becomes the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, thealien, and also the barbarian (in ancient Greece, barbaros referred to anyone who was not Greek, not a citizen); in philosophical terms, the outcast is the other. The outcast is also theout-caste, the individual who is not a part of the existing social structure, who has no status or position, who is stateless or homeless, or jobless. The myth of the nation is one of blood ties, of an extended conception of kinship, of tribalism writ large. Against such cultural foundations, political reformation derived from Enlightenment rationality provided thin cover indeed. And it is in this context that the unique nature of the American experiment stands out, and I find it interesting at this juncture to juxtapose the words of another Jewish woman, one who was a native New Yorker of the 19th century:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This famous poem is "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, as part of a campaign to raise money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and later added to the site of the monument (with the effect of permanently changing the meaning of the monument from its original intent as a political statement). Lazarus, a poetic protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had awakened from her comfortable middle class youth to a profound social consciousness as she watched the influx of European immigrants to the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn, and in particular was moved by the arrival of vast numbers of European Jews seeking to escape the persecution and pogroms that accompanied their pariah status, becoming a proto-Zionist in her own right.
Arendt may well have viewed Lazarus as idealistic, perhaps even politically naïve, but of course it was in the United States that Arendt found a safe haven from Nazi persecution, and it was here that she made her home, just as it was the nation that welcomed Charlie Chaplin as an English immigrant, where he found opportunity for advancement and success, becoming a Hollywood star and also an entrepreneur, as a partner in the founding of the United Artists film company. This is not to deny the fact that Chaplin was also a victim of McCarthyism, finding himself exiled from the United States in 1952 on account of his politics, and settled in Switzerland, nor is it meant to discount the fact that Arendt was one of the lucky few to be permitted entry, whereas the vast majority of European Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust were not allowed to emigrate to the US. And there certainly is no denying the multitude of social ills that have existed and persisted in American society. But I would say that it is here in the United States that pariahs have come to find parity, and I would go so far as to say that this nation is truly exceptional in that regard.
Click here to read "The Cinematic Jew as Pariah in its entirety.