A reader writes:
Arthur Machen wrote, “A man may be infinitely and horribly wicked, and never suspect it.” Cheney illustrates that to a T. A friend of mine work for him during the second administration. He felt that Cheney was the nicest, sweetest man he’d ever met. There’s an amazing dichotomy on display here. Your reference to Nietzsche could not be more apt, but this is a case where the appearance of self-possession masks a veritable black hole of self-deception.
I wonder if all evil isn’t like that. Arendt’s point was not that evil was banal as such, but that it could be committed by individuals who simply did not think much about it. They made no anguished decision; they were unaware of any moral constraints; they just did it, and never began to absorb what it meant. The most penetrating recent investigation into this is Errol Morris’s brilliant documentary about Don Rumsfeld. With Rumsfeld, as with Cheney, you have the same refusal even to conceive of immorality in government. It’s all semantics. The grin almost never wavers. You get the impression that this is a morally unserious person, or someone who cannot even begin to believe that there were consequences to his own actions for which he might bear some resp0nsibility.
So in the critical scene when Morris links Rumsfeld’s authorization of torture techniques to the exact same torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld simply says that no report of any kind had ever reached such a conclusion. Nothing that happened at Abu Ghraib or anywhere in the American gulag of torture camps had anything to do with him at all. He submitted his resignation after Abu Ghraib came to light not because he was in any way responsible for it in fact, but merely because he was responsible for the war in general. There’s a glibness and absolute certainty to Rumsfeld’s answer.
But Morris has done his homework – unlike so many “journalists” who have interviewed Rumsfeld on this question over the years.
He recites a passage from exactly one of the reports that Rumsfeld said had exonerated him – and it plainly concludes that the torture tactics at Abu Ghraib had indeed “migrated” from Rumsfeld’s waiving of Geneva and authorization of torture at Gitmo. What does Rumsfeld say in response? Nothing. He smiles nervously. He seems to get the brink of facing up to his own responsibility for evil and then decides to go get a cup of coffee. He never confronts his past. He just shrugs it off. He has obviously never even considered the question of his own moral responsibility for anything.
Similarly, look at the video in the first post and note how stumped Cheney is when asked to name his biggest fault. He simply has never thought of such a thing. In fact, he seems to regard any self-reflection as an irritating thing only liberals engage in – not manly, decisive men like him. In both these men, you see a kind of moral autism. Evil is defined a priori as something that others do. It is simply inconceivable to Cheney and Rumsfeld that they could ever commit evil themselves. Even when confronted by direct evidence, they simply blink as if they cannot see.
I think such an attitude is terrifying. But integral to all the great acts of evil in human history.