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The Evil of Banality
June 4, 2004
By Pamela Troy

Some years ago, I observed a working demonstration of what I've come to call (with apologies to Hannah Arendt) "the evil of banality." It was the morning rush hour. A desperate soul had climbed out onto one of the bridges leading into the city and was threatening to jump. As a civilized community, the city had responded by sending emergency vehicles out to the bridge. Uniformed personnel were standing in the cold Pacific wind, trying to coax the man from his dangerous perch and back to safety. Traffic backed up and came almost to a standstill.

A popular DJ was on at that hour, a man widely touted as the moderate voice of talk radio, a "nice guy" alternative to the obnoxious bluster of Rush Limbaugh. Since his show was being interrupted by live reports of the situation on the bridge, he decided to incorporate it into his format. I've forgotten his exact words. I'll never forget the gist of what that "nice guy" said and continued to say for the duration of the incident.

C'mon folks, he said, in his reasonable, every-man voice. Tell the truth. Is it really worth all those work hours being lost, all those tax-payer dollars being spent just to block traffic trying to convince some loser not to off himself?

He wanted to hear from the "folks" out there, especially those law-abiding taxpayers stuck out on the bridge with their cell-phones. What did they think?

The response was overwhelming. Caller after caller phoned in, their voices animated with the delight of people who believed that they had been given permission to say the unsayable. Let him jump, was the consensus. One stupid loser's life wasn't worth making them two or more hours late for work.

There were a few who called to express disgust over this "let him jump" poll. I was one of that minority. The DJ's response was an amused and apparently uncomprehending chuckle at the use of the word "callous."

Eventually the attempted suicide was pulled back to safety. Traffic returned to normal. The DJ's career suffered not so much as a dimple of damage or public criticism over that incident. He's still popular, and still touted as the voice of "moderation."

What that "nice guy" DJ did was just one half of a quarter of a notch above standing beneath a man on a ledge and chanting "jump." But because he didn't raise his voice, because he kept his language moderate, because his grammar is good and he appeals to educated people, many of whom would curl their lip at the idea of listening to Rush Limbaugh, hardly anyone seemed to notice.

Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses. Banality is.

It doesn't feel like we're living in banal times. Outrage has been piled upon outrage. Many of us are still angered by the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib, the revelations of the current administration's deceit in selling an unnecessary war, the inhumanity and stupidity that drives so many of our policies. Four years after the fact, some of us are even still appalled about having a president, not elected, but appointed by the Supreme Court.

But public outrage can be an emphemeral thing, and the drive to convince us it's all normal, or should be, has been steady and unrelenting. "Get over it," we've been told in moderate, oh-so-reasonable tones. "It's history. Old news." So far I've heard this advice offered about:

• Florida's purge of legal voters in 2000
• The suppression of dissent through the use of laughably named "Free Speech Zones" that move public demonstrations against the current administration out of sight and therefore out of mind
• The passage of the PATRIOT Act which enables government agents to, among other things, enter the homes of American citizens, rifle our belongings and hard drives, and take whatever they want without our knowledge
• The snatching of American citizens into a secretive, lawyerless limbo on the grounds that they are "enemy combatants"
• The highly questionable 2002 election results in Georgia and Nebraska
• The deliberate killing of nonembedded journalists by Coalition forces
• The revelation of the extent of the administration's deceit about Saddam Hussein's supposed recent possession of large caches of weapons of mass destruction
• The horrific pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib, and the strong indications of torture as a systemic practice throughout American run prisons in Iraq.

"Get over it" means "Get used to it." The next election is going to determine whether or not what horrified us as a travesty four years ago, two years ago, a year ago, a month ago, becomes normal. While they work hard to intimidate those who dissent, the current administration is also going to try, once the initial shock has passed, to convince everyone that only the most irrational crackpot could object to the seismic changes they are making in our country. The power of sheer banality as a defense of the indefensible should not be underestimated.

There is going to be another purge of voters in Florida. Less than a year before the election, the state has sent out a list of 47,000 names to be removed from the voter rolls, leaving counties little time to verify its accuracy. In the meantime, many of those who were wrongfully denied the right to vote in 2000 are still barred from voting.

But hey, it's been four years. Maybe they've gotten used to not being allowed to vote. Maybe it feels "normal" to them by now.

The Bush policy of steadily marginalizing dissent continues. Not only have "Free Speech Zones" made it normal to move sign carrying protestors out of sight and out of mind at Bush appearances, but the policy has been expanded in recent cases to vetting attendance at supposedly public events where Bush is speaking. Attendees have been either fingered by Republican observers as "liberals" and therefore unworthy of attending, or questioned about their politics and refused entrance if they gave the "wrong" answer. To be opposed to Bush is to be a suspicious character who must, for safety's sake, be excluded.

That too, may soon be "normal."

Perhaps most worrisome of all is the Jose Padilla case. It seems that Padilla has confessed to taking part in a heinous plot to murderously target residential areas. We know this is true because the government the same government that has been holding him incommunicado and denying him access to an attorney and apparently doesn't plan to go through the sordid business of a trial - says it's true. How might they have gotten him to confess? Well, the pictures out of Abu Ghraib may offer a clue.

But it's OK, see, because he's an "enemy combatant," and we know this because the government says so.

Does anyone really imagine that the Bush administration only wants to suspend an American citizen's right to an open hearing and access to a lawyer just one or two times?

Perhaps what's most disturbing about all this is that the torture of prisoners, the deliberate disenfranchisement of legal voters, the holding of an American without trial or adequate representation, are all being calmly discussed by some pundits as if these were issues upon which reasonable and moral people can disagree. Sorry, but they aren't, not unless those "moral and reasonable" people reject verities that are supposed to be the basis of this country's approach to political freedom. We are smarmily and blandly being sold the notion that the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions, public accountability, even common decency are little more than starry-eyed ideals that must be regretfully but sternly rejected by "realists" in this post 9/11 world.

I am an advocate of the use of reason in public discourse, but believing in reason does not mean that you reject passion, or cannot recognize inhumanity when it's defended in soothing, well- modulated tones. Much has been made of the Bush administration's attempt to foster and harness fear, but we must also be on our guard against efforts to normalize the horrific. If we even pretend to lose our capacity to be shocked, those efforts will have more than halfway succeeded.

Watch out for the "voice of moderation" that touts moderation for moderation's sake, that seeks to reassure us that the man on the bridge doesn't matter compared to the need to get commuters to work on time, the naked prisoners in the photographs don't matter compared to the need to get information on insurgents, the dark man in the mugshot doesn't matter compared to the need to combat terrorism, the names on the purge list don't matter compared to the need for an "orderly election."

That voice is not a call to reason but a rejection of it, a lullaby to soothe individual conscience into slumber.

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