Recent revelations regarding the “harsh tactics” employed by the U.S. government in the interrogation of numerous terrorist suspects have set off a firestorm of conversation. Some remain convinced the drastic torturous measures are absolutely necessary to protect our way of life, while others are becoming more entrenched in their conviction that many in our government and military are guilty of inhumane activity and serious violations of the rule of law.
My bedtime reading of late has been Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (originally published in 1963), which recounts the trial of the Nazi administrator and facilitator Adolf Eichmann before an Israeli court in 1961.
Arendt seeks to debunk the notion that Nazi leaders were psychopathic, abnormal or mentally disturbed. Instead, Arendt argues that Eichmann simply went about the business of following orders and working to climb the organizational ladder. Regardless of what he thought he was doing, Eichmann’s business involved the extermination of millions. Eichmann was hanged for his crimes in 1962.
In the end, Arendt concludes that the trial was a long lesson in the “banality of evil,” the idea that evil acts such as genocide or torture have been carried out in history by ordinary people who have come to own and embody the assumptions and justifications of their respective cultures or nations to the point that such actions become normative.
Another text I’ve returned to in the wake of the now-famous declassified torture memos is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, an account of the difficulties prisoners faced in the Soviet labor camps in the first half of the 20th century. Solzhenitsyn noticed then that torture was almost always employed in order to bolster a fabricated story rather than in pursuit of the truth.
Solzhenitsyn comments that it takes far less than hot coals or the rack to drive a human being out of his or her mind, and in eerily familiar language, Gulag describes numerous methods of interrogation: humiliation, loud sounds, sleeplessness, stuffed in bug-infested boxes, punishment cells and the straitjacket. (Solzhenitsyn actually lists a total of 30 such tactics.)
Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn’s idea of “archipelago” in the title suggests that these labor camps were secretly scattered across the country like islands.
I draw attention to these sources as a reminder of the tangled web that torture weaves. The example of Eichmann challenges us to diligence in refraining from simply falling in line with nationalistic rhetoric and blindly working for our own advancement and security.
Solzhenitsyn calls into serious question our definitions of torture and harsh interrogation. If we follow the rhetoric of many in our government and military since Sept. 11, 2001, those Russians who were interrogated in the gulags were not actually tortured. Are we actually prepared to rewrite history in this way?
Are we really prepared to condone interrogation methods such as the near-death experience of “waterboarding,” a tactic that the United States itself condemned after World War II? If such methods do not qualify as torture, what is to keep waterboarding from becoming a routine method of interrogation employed by police on American citizens who may—or may not—have information about an impending attack on an innocent person?
Are we ready for the banality of torture? We may already be there.
John Essick is assistant professor of church history at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Lexington.