Ain’t Misbehavin’

What is the nature of evil? That eternal question is being asked again as what appears to be a long, tedious and even farcical trial of the Mubarak clan unfolds. The totalitarian structure recalls Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial and Raul Hilberg’s view of “pointed malevolence” aided my many who were not unwilling at all. It also evokes Stanley Milgram whose studies on the nature of evil found that many, perhaps almost all of the perpetrators, are “ordinary people.”…

On ruminating on the nature of evil while covering the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt looked back at the burning of the Reichstag, the German parliament,  in 1933, and the immediate arrests of thousands of communists and undesirables who opposed them. Though not guilty of any real crime, those arrested were taken to the newly created concentration camps and tortured allowing Hitler to implement his plan as established in Mein Kampf. That meant anti-semitism, communism and any other oppositional force ceased to be a social prejudice and became political and legalized. it is fair to say that what she called the “overpowering reality” of totalitarian concentration camps lay behind her preoccupation with the problem of evil, a concern that lasted until the end of her life.

---Those groundbreaking and controversial experiments have had—and continue to have—long-lasting significance. They demonstrated with jarring clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced to act destructively even in the absence of physical coercion, and humans need not be innately evil or aberrant to act in ways that are reprehensible and inhumane. While we would like to believe that when confronted with a moral dilemma we will act as our conscience dictates, Milgram's obedience experiments teach us that in a concrete situation with powerful social constraints, our moral sense can easily be trampled.--- Read More: image:

Arendt also noted that in WWII internment camps for perceived enemies of democratic states differed in one significant respect from those of WWI. In America and Canada, for example, not only Japanese citizens but “American citizens of Japanese origin” were interned, the former maintaining their rights of citizenship under the Geneva Conventions while the latter, incarcerated on ethnic grounds alone, were deprived of theirs by executive fiat and without due process.

Although the imprisonment  and murder of political opposition was a factor in the camps established during nascent stages of the rise to power of totalitarian movements, it is in the consolidation phase, when Hitler and Stalin had become unopposed dictators of large populations, that Arendt realized that detention and torture represented an  entirely new phenomena. The newness was in the determination of  objective enemies and possible crimes, and, significantly, is marked out by the fact that not their existence but the conditions under which the camps operated were kept hidden from the native populations at large, including the majority of the regimes’ hierarchies. Arendt asserted that the knowledge of what actually went on in the centres of detention and confinement represented the true secret of the secret police who  administered them, and almost frightingly, she questioned,  about the degree to which that secret knowledge corresponded to the secret desires and the “secret complicities of the masses in our time.”

---Milgram's warning—that when an individual "merges...into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority"—has much resonance--- Read More:

The Mubarak trial appears to be unfolding like Eichmann’s process. There will be many witnesses describing the terror and torture they endured under state security apparatus. As Arendt stated, the difficulty with almost all accounts from recollection or by witnessesses is that in direct proportion to their authenticity they are not able “to communicate things that evade human understanding and human experience.” That is, these witnesses are destined not to succeed  if they try to explain psychologically or sociologically things which cannot be explained either way; t explaining in terms that make sense in the human world that which does not make  sense in their troubling context. Which is, the experience of individuals made inanimate in  inhuman conditions.

Arendt remarked that survivors who had  returned to the world of common sense tended to recall the camps as if they “had mistaken a nightmare for reality.” This phantom world of the camps had indeed been realized with what Arendt termed  the “sensual data of reality,” but, in her  judgment that fact indicates not that a horrific nightmare dream had been experienced but that an entirely new kind of crime had been perpetuated.


---What accounts for the far-flung influence of Milgram's obedience experiments? I believe it has to do with how, in his demonstration of our powerful propensity to obey authority, Milgram has identified one of the universals of social behavior, one that transcends both time and place: conformity. And people intuitively sense this....It is fitting that, in an article about Milgram, he should have the last word on this matter. In a letter to Alan Elms, a former student at Yale (now on the faculty of the University of California at Davis) dated September 25, 1973, Milgram wrote: "We do not observe compliance to authority merely because it is a transient cultural or historical phenomenon, but because it flows from the logical necessities of social organization. If we are to have social

e in any organized form—that is to say, if we are to have society—then we must have members of society amenable to organizational imperatives." Read More: image:


Patrick Martin:Instead, the man who ruled for 29 years with an iron fist was forced to reply meekly from an iron cage.

Throughout the defendants’ three hours in court Wednesday, Mr. Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, tended gently to their father. In their white prison suits, each clutching a green Koran, they appeared more as nurses in a religious hospital than co-defendants on trial for murder and corruption. After weeks of reports that he was in a coma, unable to speak and refusing to eat, Mr. Mubarak looked less frail than many had imagined.

The sons shielded their elderly father from lights and cameras, and stood between him and the other prisoners. At one point, Alaa bent over and kissed his father….

Thomas L. Friedman. On 1982...---That May I got a visa to Syria, just as Hama had been reopened. It was said that the Syrian regime was “encouraging” Syrians to drive through the town, see the crushed neighborhoods and contemplate the silence. So I just hired a cab in Damascus and went. It was, and remains, one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen: Whole neighborhoods, the size of four football fields, looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over them for a week — but this was not the work of Mother Nature. This was an act of unprecedented brutality, a settling of scores between Assad’s minority Alawite regime and Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority that had dared to challenge him. If you kicked the ground in some areas that had been flattened, a tattered book, a shred of clothing, the tip of a steel reinforcing rod were easily exposed. It was a killing field. According to Amnesty International, up to 20,000 people were buried there. I contemplated the silence and gave it a name: “Hama Rules.” Hama Rules were the prevailing leadership rules in the Arab world. They said: Rule by fear — strike fear in the heart of your people by letting them know that you play by no rules at all, so they won’t ever, ever, ever think about rebelling against you. --- Read More: image:

…The scene of filial piety seemed to upset one of the prosecuting lawyers, so much so that he shouted at the former president that he was not really Mr. Mubarak, but an imposter. Mr. Mubarak had died in 2004, he insisted, and this look-alike was continuing to rule for the benefit of the Mubarak family. Read More:

Arendt was  aware of the chasm in individual suffering that divides the oppressed from their oppressors, but her analysis was nuanced and controversial. Unlike populist depictions which  demonize the oppressors, Arendt viewed the totalitarians, the evil agents themselves , predominantly in their own  self-estimation, as simply superfluous human beings.According to Arendt, S.S. officers   were chosen through photographic analysis, by what was viewed as objective racial characteristics, instead of through an interview process in which their inclination , mental processes, suitability or pathologies for the  tasks they were c to perform, could be determined. The S.S. was as far beyond the reach of law as its prisoners. Arend’s point was that  slave labor and death camps succeeded in draining the moral being of the destroyers as well as the destroyed. This recalls  Himmler’s directive  that they had to become superhumanly inhuman. That is, obedience and devotion are necessary but any form of conviction and agreement is not condoned since it implies possibility of some shred or thread of spontaneous thought and willingness to take action. This is probably what she meant by the “banality of evil.” Eichmann was an individual who showed  no spontaneity and as the Mubarak trial proceeds the same pattern will be evinced from the Mubarak torturers.

According to Arendt, those who support a totalitarian system,a fascist system , are either  bearers of orders or bearers of secrets but in the view of the regime they are not responsible for their actions. That is, in the absence of a  structure of responsibility the reality of the world transforms itself into what Arendt called  a mass of incomprehensible data.


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Two additional historical theses appear in Hilberg’s criticism of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the first directed against her view of the “banality” of Nazi (at least of Eichmann’s) evil. Hilberg, who had analyzed the layers of Nazi bureaucracy much more methodically than had Arendt, draws a conclusion about the nature of its evil precisely opposite to hers. The mindless repetition of bureaucracy, its hierarchies and credo of “following orders,” could not by itself, in his judgment, explain the animus that sustained the “Final Solution.” Eichmann’s initiatives in finding “pathways” (p. 150) through the bureaucracy were active and deliberate, and these built on “the all-encompassing readiness” (p. 124) of the bureaucrats themselves who in turn found the German people as a whole not unwilling. Taken together, these disclose a pointed malevolence in the policies and actions constituting the Holocaust that was not banal at all. (They also refute Daniel Goldhagen’s recent assertion that earlier historians had failed to notice what he claimed to be the German will to genocide.) Read More:

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