In her great work "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," Hannah Arendt wrote how "ordinary Germans" could commit atrocities without any pangs of conscience or morality.
Today American commanders are forced to confront evidence that United States troops mistreated prisoners at one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious prisons.
It is hard to miss Abu Ghraib on the way into Baghdad. I recognized it immediately. The jail was famous for being the place where Saddam committed many of his systematic atrocities. I would never have predicted that U.S. personnel would dishonor America by committing similar acts of abuse, but I stand surprised and disappointed. But then, I have been "suspicious" for many months.
As Paul Bremer’s first and most consistent critic, I have been astounded at the way he moved to establish an American presence in all of Saddam’s hateful facilities. Instead of having a simple command post outside Baghdad, Bremer set himself up as "viceroy" in a Saddam Palace. Big mistake number one.
Similarly, instead of seeing that prisoners were humanely treated, Bremer allowed Abu Ghraib to become notorious as an American prison, thereby continuing the cancerous symbolism of links between Saddam’s abuses and President Bush’s. Big mistake number two.
Now it has all exploded.
The mistreatment of prisoners is one of the vilest acts that organized society can commit. By definition, prisoners are in custody, and subject to the full power of the government. For U.S. military personnel to harass, degrade and abuse prisoners is just one more sorry chapter in a seemingly endless litany of gross mismanagement by Bremer and his military counterparts.
What about the banality of these evil deeds? The perpetrators of these vile acts were our neighbors. Now they are all finger pointing: enlisted men are saying, "they only followed orders." Where have I heard that phrase before? General Sanchez, American commander in Iraq, is saying "we didn’t know what was going on." Also a familiar disclaimer.
No wonder Bush does not want to subject American troops to a war crimes tribunal; we are committing human rights violations. It is as though we are using the same words and phrases as Nazi Germany to defend our outrageous prisoner abuses in Iraq.
How could military morons think they were helping Bush’s policy in Iraq by abusing civilians? I wore the uniform with pride. How can those people who are abusing and degrading human beings wear their uniforms with pride or be proud of their behavior in Iraq? We are all diminished when prisoners are abused.
Why are we unable to understand the depths and persistence of the Iraqi "resistance" by "insurgents" when Iraqis have American atrocities to motivate them?
And yet, and yet, the perpetrators of these crimes were ordinary Americans, not Waffen SS. The military police unit responsible for many of the abuse accusations is headquartered in a small Maryland town.
Truly, we are forced to confront the banality of our own evil, and the banality of our neighbors’ evil, in Iraq. And we are also forced to confront why we are failing in Iraq: We are our own worst enemy.
It is not a pleasant sight.
President Bush: do something. Hold someone accountable. The president has a right to be angry at American abuses. But he has to do something about them.