Here’s a great example of why, despite his sometimes irritating grandiosity and other flaws, I still really respect Andrew Sullivan. In two recent posts he takes on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and the fact that neither of them has the slightest inclination to ever question themselves or their decisions. On Cheney:
What has long struck me about Dick Cheney was not his decision to weigh the moral cost of torture against what he believed was the terrible potential cost of forgoing torture. That kind of horrible moral choice is something one can in many ways respect. If Cheney had ever said that he knows torture is a horrifying and evil thing, that he wrestled with the choice, and decided to torture, I’d respect him, even as I’d disagree with him. But what’s staggering about Cheney is that he denies that any such weighing of moral costs and benefits is necessary. Torture was, in his fateful phrase, a “no-brainer.”
Think about that for a moment. A no-brainer. Abandoning a core precept of George Washington’s view of the American military, trashing laws of warfare that have been taught for centuries at West Point, using the word “honor” as if it had no meaning at all: this is the man who effectively ran the country for years after 9/11, until he was eventually sidelined in the second Bush term. Here is the true Nietzschean figure – beyond good and evil, motivated solely by his own will to power and hatred of those who might thwart him. Here is the politician Carl Schmitt believed in: one for whom all morality is subordinate to the exercise of power, and whose favorite form of power is overwhelming physical violence. The other word for this is sociopath.
And on Rumsfeld:
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.
But yes, there is a banality to this, in the sense that it’s something we all could easily do in the same situation. The human mind is a rationalizing machine, not a rational machine, and we have an extraordinary ability to engage in self-justification. What is at work here is far more routine than we’d like to admit.