Evil of Banality
By Pamela Troy
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.
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
The deliberate killing of nonembedded journalists by
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
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.