Mar 10, 2014
Happy as a Hangman
Posted on Dec 6, 2010
By Chris Hedges
Organs of state repression do not rely so much on fanatics and sadists as ordinary citizens who are desperate, who need a job, who are willing to obey. Arendt relates a story of a Jew who is released from Buchenwald. The freed Jew encountered, among the SS men who gave him certificates of release, a former schoolmate, whom he did not address but stared at. The SS guard spontaneously explained to his former friend: “You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.”
Arendt also quotes an interview with a camp official at Majdanek. The camp official concedes that he has assisted in the gassing and burying of people alive. But when he is asked, “Do you know the Russians will hang you?” he bursts into tears. “Why should they? What have I done?” he says.
I can imagine, should the rule of law ever one day be applied to the insurance companies responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans denied medical care, that there will be the same confused response from insurance executives. What is frightening in collapsing societies is not only the killers, sadists, murderers and psychopaths who rise up out of the moral swamp to take power, but the huge numbers of ordinary people who become complicit in state crimes. I saw this during the war in El Salvador and the war in Bosnia. It is easy to understand a demented enemy. It is puzzling to understand a rational and normal one. True evil, as Goethe understood, is not always palpable. It is “to render invisible another human consciousness.”
“If only there were vile people ... committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “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?”
The expansions of public and private organs of state security, from Homeland Security to the mercenary forces we are building in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the burgeoning internal intelligence organizations, exist because these “ordinary” citizens, many of whom are caring fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, have confused conformity to the state with innocence. Family values are used, especially by the Christian right, as the exclusive definition of public morality. Politicians, including President Obama, who betray the working class, wage doomed imperial wars, abandon families to home foreclosures and bank repossessions, and refuse to restore habeas corpus, are morally “good” because they are loyal husbands and fathers. Infidelity, instead of corporate murder, becomes in this absurd moral reasoning the highest and most unforgivable offense.
The bureaucrats who maintain these repressive state organs, who prosecute the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or who maintain corporate structures that perpetuate human suffering, can define themselves as good—as innocent—as long as they are seen as traditional family men and women who are compliant to the laws of the state. And this redefinition of civic engagement permits us to suspend moral judgment and finally common sense. Do your job. Do not ask questions. Do not think. If these bureaucrats were challenged for the crimes they are complicit in committing, including the steady dismantling of the democratic state, they would react with the same disbelief as the camp guard at Majdanek.
Those who serve as functionaries within corporations such as Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil and carry out crimes ask of their masters that they be exempted from personal responsibility for the acts they commit. They serve corporate structures that kill, but, as Arendt notes, the corporate employee “does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” At home the corporate man or woman is meek. He or she has no proclivity to violence, although the corporate systems they serve by day pollute, impoverish, maim and kill.
Those who do not carry out acts of rebellion, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are guilty of solidifying and perpetuating these crimes. Those who do not act delude themselves into believing they are innocent. They are not.
Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a weekly columnist for Truthdig. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.” On Dec. 16 he, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, Dr. Margaret Flowers and several others will hold a rally across from the White House to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attempt to chain themselves to the White House fence. More information on the Dec. 16 protest can be found at www.stopthesewars.org.
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