If Nancy Pelosi were poor and sleeping on my sidewalk, she’d be arrested for loitering.  But because she has  $125 million bucks in the bank, and a sign on the door of her office reading “Speaker of the House,” it’s called “government.”

–Compound F

Nancy Pelosi’s statement about war protestors being arrested for loitering exhibited frustration at her base’s desire to end the evil in Iraq and also struck a rather authoritarian chord.  While she voted against funding, she is obviously deeply conflicted about her commitments to the Constitution, oversight, and basic ethics.  The same can be said of Congress as a whole.  I hope we can agree that lying one’s way into an aggressive war in which a million people have been killed for the purposes of resource theft can be easily categorized as “evil.”

Evil is a loaded concept, so let me pare it down. Evil is not “out there” as a mythic, religious, or supernatural force.  While I insist on looking inward to find evil, I also don’t care for the “empirical” notion that Good and Evil can be adequately represented by a continuum of pleasure and pain.  I prefer the more philosophical or moral version in which evil is related to the intent to do harm. 

The banality of evil thesis

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Good point Aleks.  However, although it is true that each of us carries the capacity for doing intentional harm to others, I do believe there are people somewhere, e.g., in the White House, insidiously committing evil deeds, and that it is necessary to separate them from the rest of us.  That is truly what the justice and penal systems are intended for, not for political prosecution-also courtesy of the White House– which I’m sure Solzhenitsyn understood, all too well.  To an extent, Solzhenitsyn’s assertion parallels Arendt’s view that evil is horrifyingly commonplace.  Accepting such a thesis is difficult, in that it seems unacceptably unbound and not supported by everyday experience.  It also seems to give license to evil by asserting, “Everyone does it.”

According to Reichler and Haslam, the banality of evil thesis is summed-up thusly:

Evil triumphs because ordinary, decent individuals turn helplessly into monsters when they find themselves in monstrous circumstances-notably, when their judgment is subverted by deference to a powerful group.

The banality of evil under monstrous conditions

It is certainly true that monstrous circumstances, such as war, can bring out the worst in us.  I read somewhere that 90% of all casualties in 20th century wars were civilian.  Whether that figure is accurate, one need only consider the indiscriminate killing and torture currently being carried out in Iraq to see how monstrous situations evoke evil. It is demonstrated that stress, in and of itself, can reduce thresholds for aggression against provocative stimuli, due to the actions of stress hormones on an area of the brain known as the “hypothalamic attack area.”  We know our soldiers are stressed to the max.

Fiske et al describe the social context that reduces thresholds for indiscriminate aggression even further.

Virtually anyone can be aggressive if sufficiently provoked, stressed, disgruntled, or hot (3-6). The situation of the 800th Military Police Brigade guarding Abu Ghraib prisoners fit all the social conditions known to cause aggression. The soldiers were certainly provoked and stressed: at war, in constant danger, taunted and harassed by some of the very citizens they were sent to save, and their comrades were dying daily and unpredictably. Their morale suffered, they were untrained for the job, their command climate was lax, their return home was a year overdue, their identity as disciplined soldiers was gone, and their own amenities were scant (7). Heat and discomfort also doubtless contributed.

The fact that the prisoners were part of a group encountered as enemies would only exaggerate the tendency to feel spontaneous prejudice against outgroups. In this context, oppression and discrimination are synonymous. One of the most basic principles of social psychology is that people prefer their own group (8) and attribute bad behavior to outgroups (9). Prejudice especially festers if people see the outgroup as threatening cherished values (10-12). This would have certainly applied to the guards viewing their prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but it also applies in more “normal” situations. A recent sample of U.S. citizens on average viewed Muslims and Arabs as not sharing their interests and stereotyped them as not especially sincere, honest, friendly, or warm (13-15).

Even more potent predictors of discrimination are the emotional prejudices (“hot” affective feelings such as disgust or contempt) that operate in parallel with cognitive processes (16-18). Such emotional reactions appear rapidly, even in neuroimaging of brain activations to outgroups (19, 20). But even they can be affected by social context. Categorization of people as interchangeable members of an outgroup promotes an amygdala response characteristic of vigilance and alarm and an insula response characteristic of disgust or arousal, depending on social context; these effects dissipate when the same people are encountered as unique individuals (21, 22).

Many substantive causes for war atrocities can be identified in this brief excerpt, but we can at least define them as substantive.  Notably, it has been thoroughly evident for years, and particularly during Islamofascist Fashion Awareness Week hosted by David Horowitz, that the entire religion of Islam has been cast in our media as an outgroup to be dehumanized as ideologically disgusting, personally threatening, and worthy of being killed.  Such hateful and racist propaganda has been promoted in this country literally for decades.  Most of our Presidential hopefuls continue to parade in the pageantry of ideological orientations, intergroup attitudes, and interpersonal disgust as we march to war with Iran.  We on the left tend to foster interpersonal disgust for right-wing authoritarians, and the feeling is more than mutual.  This is the same reason why soldiers refer to Iraqis as “Hadjis.”  Creating (often false) Pavlovian associations is a classic mechanism for eliciting “enemy recognition” within the ingroup.  Add to that the other obvious physical and psychological stressors on the battlefield, and one establishes the quintessential recipe for the commission of atrocities.  These are very substantive causes for genocidal behavior on a true battlefield.  While it remains evil, it is an understandable evil.

The banality of evil under non-monstrous, even bureaucratic conditions

Such substantive causes for genocide did not and still do not exist for those who lied about the reasons for war, sent our soldiers to war, who chose to go to war with the army they had, and who provided them with insufficient numbers and capacities to complete the evil act.  These people were and are bureaucrats not engaged on the battlefield, and who do not share anything even approaching such substantive causes for evil acts. 

There are a million dead people in Iraq, the genocide continues aimlessly, and both Americans and Iraqis want us out.  Democrats have controlled Congress for the past 10 months, and many continue to act as our adversaries to perpetuate an evil war of aggression, often via inaction, false action, capitulation, and the all-too-frequent counterfeiting of facts.  To the extent that the collective behavior of Congress strongly resembles a bureaucratic exercise in evil, as Arendt portrayed Adolf Eichmann’s behavior, it might be useful to re-consider Eichmann as an agent of evil to see if further comparisons might be revealed.

In 1961, Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem for his role in the Holocaust. He was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to hang-primarily for his role as a chief architect of the “final solution to the Jewish question” that led to the murder of millions in Nazi extermination camps. Psychiatrists had previously claimed that Eichmann was “a man obsessed with a dangerous and insatiable urge to kill” who had “a dangerous and perverted personality” (Arendt, 1963, p. 21). Famously, though, Hannah Arendt commented that the details of Eichmann’s biography-as borne out at his trial-showed this analysis to be wholly mistaken. Eichmann was no psychopath. Rather, he was a thoroughly normal career civil servant who simply followed orders. For Arendt, Eichmann’s life thereby offered one key lesson: “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and thought- defying banality of evil” (p. 252). 

Arendt’s (1963) point (at least as it is routinely understood; but see Newman, 2001) was not just that Eichmann was an ordinary man with ordinary motives. It was that he also killed mechanically, unimaginatively, unquestioningly. For her, the truly horrifying thing about Eichmann was that he had lost his capacity for moral judgment. Obsessed with the technical details of genocide (e.g., timetabling transport to the death camps), he and his fellow bureaucrats had no awareness that what they were doing was wrong.

As fate would have it, at the same time that Eichmann was standing trial, Milgram (1963, 1974) was conducting his studies of obedience. In these, well-adjusted men participating in a bogus memory experiment proved willing to deliver electric shocks of increasing magnitude to another person who posed as learner. Indeed, every single “teacher” was prepared to administer intense shocks of 300 volts, and 65% obeyed all the experimenter’s requests, dispensing shocks apparently in excess of 450 volts (beyond a point labeled Danger, Severe Shock).

Not only did Milgram’s findings support Arendt’s contention that unremarkable people can commit remarkably cruel acts, but so too, his explanation mirrored hers. As he saw it, when confronted by strong leaders, people enter an “agentic state” in which they suspend their own judgment and cede responsibility for their actions to those in charge.

Thus, Milgram appropriated Arendt’s thesis:

Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare to imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the person did so out of a sense of obligation-a conception of his duties as a subject-and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies. (pp. 23-24)

The confluence of Arendt’s thesis and Milgram’s obedience experiment cemented a new precedent in thought concerning the origins of evil.  It was not the result pathological individuals: It was due to unremarkable people following scripts given to them by people in authority.  Later came the Standford Prison Experiment by Phillip Zimbardo, which appeared to largely confirm, and even extend this idea.  In that experiment, other-wise normal students were recruited from campus for a simulated prison study in which half were randomly assigned as “guards” and the other half were assigned as “prisoners.”  Arbitrary cruelty developed in the guards toward the prisoners so rapidly that the experiment had to be ended prematurely.  This appeared even worse than committing evil based on following instructions:  These people were widely (and falsely) believed to have received no instructions at all.  They simply assumed their roles voluntarily.  As Zimbardo claims, these were “good apples in a bad barrel.”

In post-experimental debriefings, interviews were conducted between the guards and prisoners.  One exchange with one of the more brutal guards known as “John Wayne,” went as follows:

‘John Wayne’: What would you have done if you were in my position?

Prisoner: I don’t know. But I don’t think I would have been so inventive. I don’t think I would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing.  Do you understand? . . . If I had been a guard I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece. (Zimbardo, 1989)

Based on Arendt’s observations and these experiments, the thesis that evil is so commonplace as to be “banal” has gained great currency in professional and popular imaginations.

So, is this the whole story?  Humans are simply hapless half-wit automatons in thrall to authority to such an extent that we are incapable off resisting it, even when it serves obviously evil ends?  Is it plausible that one really enters an “agentic state” and acts like a zombie upon instruction by someone in authority?  Aside from a handful of flesh-eating Stalkin’ Malkin-ites, who have completely ingested extremely incendiary propaganda to the point of derangement, I seriously doubt this.

As I stated above, there are obvious and substantive causes for the commission of atrocities in a war zone following decades of careful and deliberate manipulation of public opinion concerning intergroup attitudes and the scurrilous counterfeiting of imminent threats.  This alone suggests that evil is not banal, but rather has to be carefully manufactured.  And unlike the characterization of Eichmann as “unimaginative, mechanical, and unquestioning,” the “John Wayne” character from the Stanford Prison Study was quite inventive and imaginative in his masterpiece of brutality.  Further, to the extent that we would attempt to apply this thesis to Congress, who would be the authority to which they have become enthralled?  They have a completely independent Constitutional mandate from the Executive designed precisely to avoid such conflicts of interest.  Are they simply good apples in a bad barrel as Zimbardo asserts?  And if so, what makes that barrel bad?

With respect to the Stanford Prison Experiment (as Haslam and Reicher point out), it is simply not true that the guards were given no instruction.  On the contrary, they were rather explicitly instructed by Zimbardo to engender a feeling of powerlessness in the prisoners during an orientation session:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me-that they’ll have no privacy at all. . . . There’ll be constant surveillance. Nothing they do will go unobserved. They’ll have no freedom of action, they can do nothing, or say nothing that we don’t permit.  We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness.

This goes far beyond simply placing a good apple in a bad barrel.  This is an explicit instruction to usurp the power of the prisoners and replace it with a sense of powerlessness.  In addition, being the primary investigator, an obvious position of authority, and apparent  “team leader” for the guards, Zimbardo says, “We’re going to take away their individuality….”  Even with such explicit instructions to essentially engage in torture, the guards nevertheless divided themselves into groups that were in various degrees of complicity with the “leadership:”  As Haslam and Reicher point out:

Yet the existence of leadership in the SPE should not be equated with the passivity of followers. For, as in RPB 101 [Reserve Police Battallion that killed 38,000 Polish Jews], it is clear that not all the guards were brutal.  Zimbardo (1989) himself acknowledges that they could be divided into three categories: those who sided with the prisoners, those who were strict but fair, and those few who actively humiliated their charges (a structure that, as Browning [1992, p. 168] observes, bears an “uncanny resemblance” to that of RPB 101)

So, it was simply not the case that all or even a majority guards caved to authority to “actively humiliate” their charges, despite being in a bad barrel with explicit instructions to behave badly.  In addition, one has to question the role of certain types of people self-selecting themselves to participate in what was advertised as a “prison experiment.” 

With respect to the Milgram study, although 65% of the subjects did engage in behavior with harmful intent, 35% refused, and this was in the condition when they were seated in a remote location from the people presumed to be on the receiving end of the shocks.  When subjects were face to face with these experimental confederates, and had to actively place their hand upon the electrodes, the percentage of subjects who complied dropped to 30%, far less than half.  Haslam and Reicher also note that,

…the transcripts of experimental sessions show that many of those who displayed total obedience experienced chronic doubt and articulated profound moral conflicts between their responsibilities to the learner and their responsibilities to “science” (Blass, 2004; Milgram, 1974). All in all, then, Milgram’s theoretical account is as weak as his empirical evidence is powerful (Blass, 2004; Miller, 2004).

So, contrary to both popular and professional accounts, these experiments do not conform to the thesis that evil is so commonplace as to be banal.  In both cases, the number of tormentors was well below half of the group when they were face-to-face with the tormented.  Many expressed feeling tormented themselves by the conflicts between obedience and ethical concerns.  While many of our soldiers will return from war with severe psychological scars, it is highly doubtful our politicians will suffer the same from their “remote locations,” which if anything appear to enhance a willingness to engage in harmful intent.

On what is Arendt’s commonly accepted thesis based?  According to Haslam, Reicher, and others, she was duped by Eichmann himself:

The banality-of-evil perspective remains influential, but it is not without critics. Most visibly, several historians have begun to reconsider the role of moral agency in acts of genocide (e.g., Goldhagen, 1996; Mandel, 1998; see also Haslam & Reicher, 2006a; Newman & Erber, 2002; Reicher & Haslam, 2006a). Some of the most insightful of these contributions deal with the specific case of Eichmann and his fellow Nazi bureaucrats who first inspired the notion that evil is banal (Cesarani, 2004; Lozowick, 2002; Vetlesen, 2005).

In setting about challenging received wisdom, Cesarani (2004) starts with the telling observation that Arendt (1963) only attended the first few days of Eichmann’s trial, in which he presented his own testimony. But here, Eichmann’s aim was precisely to present himself as dull and ordinary in order to blunt the prosecution’s claim that he was a murderous fanatic. And by leaving prematurely, Arendt avoided a string of witnesses who testified to the fact that Eichmann was anything but a banal bureaucrat. As Vetlesen (2005) puts it, “in suggesting that he was ‘merely thoughtless,’ she in fact adopts the very self-presentation he cultivated” (p. 5).

Further facts about Eichmann also dispel the notion that his engagement with evil was simply bureaucratic. 

[Eichmann] was comfortable with Nazi anti-Semitism and found the
general ideology of the party congenial. Second, his views were transformed in the context of his increasing identification with the Nazi movement. In particular, his position regarding Jewish people changed from one of seeking voluntary emigration to one of enforcing transportation to the death camps. Third, he did not simply follow orders. Rather, he pioneered creative, new methods of deportation-in part because this won him the approbation and preferment of superiors. Indeed, in 1944 he was so zealous in his innovative schemes to destroy Hungarian Jewry that he even came into conflict with Himmler (his superior) over the latter’s more conciliatory policies. Fourth, Eichmann was well aware of what he was doing and was constantly confronted with the realities of the deaths he caused. Fifth, he was equally well aware that others considered his acts to be wrong, but even after the war he displayed neither remorse nor repentance

Thus, the case laid out by Haslam, Reicher and others with respect to Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis is that Eichmann was quite amenable to Nazi ideology, he actively and creatively engaged in these policies, in part due to conflicts of interest, i.e., careerism, and he had and grown increasingly zealous and predatory over time.

Thus, upon re-examination the banality of evil thesis is at minimum weakened by countervailing evidence from the very sources from which it had developed.  While I continue to agree with Solzenitsyn and Arendt to the extent that anyone is capable of evil, it is probably incorrect to say that people commonly engage in evil.  It fits neither everyday experience nor the relevant literature.

An interactionist view of evil.

So, where does this leave us with respect to the fact that Congress continues to aid and abet aggressive war and genocide?  It is almost certainly not the case that everyone in Congress is simply inherently evil, but rather that a number of factors interact to result in evil outcomes. 

First, becoming a politician is an extremely self-selecting act.  You don’t survive political campaigns, much less become Speaker of the House without some relevant and often strong ideological orientation, hunger for power, social dominance, aggressiveness, narcissism, and Machiavellian tendencies.  To some extent, politicians may be like the “John Wayne” guard, who appeared to demonstrate a natural propensity for authoritarianism, and may have been drawn to the prison study for exactly those tendencies.  Such arrogant authoritarianism is obvious when Pelosi unilaterally takes impeachment off the table against the wishes of her constituents, or when she expresses a desire to arrest war protestors for loitering.  In other words, there may exist certain ideological resonances between an individual and an institution in which they serve.  As in the case of Eichmann or “John Wayne,” these resonances may grow stronger over time

In May 1939 . . . Eichmann’s attitude and conduct towards Jews underwent a significant metamorphosis. There was a new arrogance. . . . He behaved like a man with power: a young god in a shiny black uniform. His appetite for promotion and power had meshed with the dynamic of the SD [Sicherheitsdienst-the intelligence service of the SS in whose Berlin head office Eichmann worked] and the Nazi regime. For the first time, and without compunction, he took responsibility for the detention and death of Jews. (Cesarani, 2004, p. 71)

Secondly, politicians have conflicts of interest.  Just as Eichmann creatively perfected the final solution based partly on careerism, our Democrats also have extreme conflicts of interest.  Most importantly, they want to keep their positions of power.  Democrats are thrilled to let Republicans struggle with this misbegotten war, so they can take more seats in 2008.  Democrats are determined to stay in Iraq to make sure we control the oil, which equates with economic power and geopolitical influence.  Democrats are beside themselves taking money from the military-industrial-complex.  Ask What’s Her Name.  Democrats are pleased as punch to take money from AIPAC, group that has repeatedly demonstrated extremist and eliminationist rhetoric.  Democrats probably wonder if George Bush’s Unitary Executive might not look good on them.  These are extreme conflicts of interest.

Third, the entire atmosphere in Washington has been deliberately poisoned by fear and the extremist views of right-wing authoritarians.  This fear and authoritarianism has infected every single issue.  Rove was very successful in politicizing every single department in government, increasing conflicts of interest between the free-market, politicians, and government, and promoting formerly marginal extremists, such as Grover Norquist, as mainstream spokespeople.  This in turn has allowed ideological hacks such as Joe Lieberman to really get the freak on he has always wanted to get on.  One can only wish this hateful, racist and eliminationist rhetoric had not infected the Democrats.

Fourth, “true believers” in evil are seldom born, but are rather made by a combination of both exogenous and endogenous variables.  Individual propensities, conflicts of interest, prevailing dominant ideologies, and frankly, an ability to lie to oneself, all combine to create situations in which evil is accomplished.

I’m not saying the Democrats in Congress are comparable to Eichmann.  Even at their worst, their intent is not to kill as many Iraqis as possible, even though a million are already dead, and the genocide continues unabated.  However, they are flirting with evil, lusting for power at the expense of Iraqis,  failing to act on oversight at the expense of their constituents, purposefully overlooking the evil of others.  These are all choices.  Democrats are not inherently evil, do not turn helplessly in monsters under monstrous circumstances, because their bureaucratic situation is not monstrous, and there is no authority to which they must be blindly obedient.  The closest thing to such an authority is the Constitution.  The two powers given to them by that authority that would most indicate their non-alignment with evil are the powers of the purse to defund the war and the impeachment and prosecution of true evil-doers.


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  1. I will try to act like a great buffer.

    Most of the quotes come from an essay entitled, “Beyond the Banality of Evil: Three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny,” by Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher.  It’s subscription only, here:


    I did not stick too closely with their ultimate conclusions, just the “beyond the banality of evil” part.  I was winging the rest myself.  You’ll have to read them for their interpretation.

    • pfiore8 on October 29, 2007 at 04:06

    i don’t want to read any more tonight

    i did want to say hello CF… tell you that i did LOVE your quote

    just take care of yourself, okay???

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