A return to the banality of evil.

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

9 thoughts on “A return to the banality of evil.

  1. If it is anything like the prison service those with the greatest conscience soon leave and eventually the concentration of the remainder is largely composed of those who are comfortable with being cruel to their subjects.

    In the case of Hager one could say that a third of the country think of him like a hero, another third a villain, and the rest are indifferent. In this situation it is largely a matter of luck as to how far the harassment will manage to be successful (the indifferent will always follow authority though).

  2. In a previous job many moons ago at a large corporate that shall remain nameless, they had a habit of supplying the police with customer records based on a faxed request with the police letterhead. Since only I and one other were the experts who could extract the data in a timely manner we dug our heels in and said that we wanted to see a search warrant. After a fair bit of grief from the company PR team and various suits, my boss backed us – and we started getting search warrants delivered.

    Quite proud of myself for that episode.

  3. Diversity people call illegal immigrants undocumented arrivals. Islamobama started enforcing the law, and its probably not unreasonable that the law would be followed.
    It must be painful to be surrounded by what you think is such evil, and miss out on reality all together.

  4. Paul:

    i am surprised to see you slumming on this end of the blogosphere. But as usual your take is wrong. The law does not stipulate forced separation of undocumented children from parents. That was a policy decision ordered by Trump. The Obama administration only separated kids from parents when the parent was being sent to jail after being found to have committed or was convicted with commiting felony crimes–and those were a handful of cases. None of the parents of the 2000+ currently separated kids have been charged with any felony (illegal entry is a misdemeanor). In fact, those claiming asylum did what the UN recommends and what Ahmed Zaoui did–they present themselves without documents to authorities once they have entered the border (hence the more appropriate term “undocumented”). Arriving as an undocumented person makes one Stateless by definition, which is supposed to afford them all of the protections of international refugee law until their cases are sorted. So the US is violating international refugee conventions as well a host of human rights and humanitarian norms, both international and domestic.

    Let’s be honest here, Paul: the separation policy was/is racist and maliciously punitive (after all, there are no such detention centers on the Canadian border). And that is exactly why you like it.

  5. In a conflict between “authority” and morality, one would hope that morality would emerge victorious. Regrettably, it usually does not in New Zealand. Many government officials echo the late Richard Nixon, believing, wrongly, that “if the government does it, it can’t be illegal”. So we have cases of otherwise decent and law-abiding government employees generating fake invoices, filing false returns to the companies office and so on in order to hide dodgy financial transfers which the government wishes to keep out of the public arena. This is a big problem for New Zealand, as for the US, and there will be no quick and easy fix. “Sanctuary” is to be congratulated for doing the right thing. More will have to follow his example if we are to establish the rule of law in this country.

  6. Good on you, Sanctuary. Were it that there were more people with your ethics.

  7. Good on you Pablo for writing on a part of the human psyche that is very prevalent in all it’s guises, with big impacts and small. Speaking of banality,The other day I read of a serial killer to whom you wouldn’t have given a second glance, had they sat beside you. But evil flourishes when good people do nothing. To me a condition that exacerbates evil is the herd/group/tribal instinct of societies which is so easily manipulated for evil purposes.

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