Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Real Problem of Evil

Atrios makes a perfectly reasonable point:

I'm actually not even entirely sure why I feel extra disgust for the people who rationalized evil instead of the ones who ordered and committed it.
It's in response to these statements by Alberto Gonzalez:

"What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?" he said during an interview Tuesday, offering his most extensive comments since leaving government.

During a lunch meeting two blocks from the White House, where he served under his longtime friend, President George W. Bush, Mr. Gonzales said that "for some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror."
It is not to be overlooked that Gonzales, like the entire Bush Administration, insists he wasn't in charge, that he was powerless in his position of power:

My job wasn't to say, the agency [CIA] wants you to do this. I wouldn't do that. We did not pressure the department [of Justice] to deliver a particular answer. That contention is terribly disrespectful to the reputations of the lawyers."

In the end it was up to the department. John Yoo had strong views. No one could make him do anything he didn't want to do.
"As a lawyer, people have this misperception that we as lawyers were responsible for creation of policies that they don't like. [After the Sept. 11 terror attacks] The president asked the FBI, the CIA to tell us what we need to do to prevent another attack. They turned to the lawyers and asked can we do it."
I will say, as a lawyer, that position is indefensible crap. No lawyer is an automaton, helpless to do anything but what his client asks of him. And if that "defense" sounds terribly close to: "I was only following orders," it should. And if that further sounds like I don't see a distinction between the crimes of the Nazis and the crimes of George W. Bush, it's because I don't. But to Atrios' point: why is it more disgusting to rationalize evil than to actually commit it?

Perhaps because it is a tenet of the Enlightenment, and one reason we still call it the "enlightenment," that reason is supposed to be a bulwark against evil, the true savior which will deliver us from evil. Except it doesn't, and it never has. Which, in truth, is pretty much what Reinhold Niebuhr was getting at in Moral Man and Immoral Society. Because it's perfectly reasonable for a society to act in self-defense and for it's self-preservation, and to ask as little sacrifice from its constituents as possible, and certainly to not ask the society to sacrifice even itself in the name of a higher principal than survival. Which is why his brother Richard considered the argument an assault on Christian ethics, even as it presented itself as an application of Christian ethics.

But that's another problem; and, indeed, the eternal problem: how does one deal ethically with evil? And if you can't deal ethically with it, how does one distinguish good from evil?

Meet the new year, same as the old year.

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