Banality, Evil, and Romney
A few days ago, my friend John Zmirak begged Americans to remember the blowhards, fools, and amateur Machiavellians who steered Europe into suicide: the 20 million war dead and unspeakable destruction of World War I, which made the world safe for Communism and the Holocaust. He had to beg because it’s difficult.
Dear reader, can you name a single one of the diplomats, prime ministers, or other civilian leaders whose incompetence led to that war? You can’t. They are forgotten. Because they were forgettable. Not one of them had the vision to see the ruination that lay just beyond the brink. They weren’t even vividly evil, but merely contemptible.
The greatest crimes in history aren’t all conceived by visionary madmen. Some such crimes instead simply accumulate, as the waste products of thousands of wicked decisions made for venal or cowardly reasons by little, forgettable men. Like rat droppings on a battlefield.
Whom Do We Blame for Slavery?
For instance, the decision to import African slaves into the Americas. That started with a few greedy conquistadors and grasping Arab traders. It led to a vast system of cruelty, the American Civil War, Jim Crow, race riots, and (in our day) Critical Race Theory. Can you name a single slave-trader?
But sometimes, Providence operates to reveal the mechanism of mass-production injustice, by casting a cold, clear light on one of the cogs that turn its wheels. By studying how such functionaries end up enabling tremendous evil, we can learn how to reject such temptations in our own lives. We can instead shoulder the cross and obey the dictates of our conscience. We can train ourselves to swim upstream against a powerful current of groupthink that threatens the powerless and the forgotten.
When a Man Becomes a Machine
Using her own Classical worldview, philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the case of Adolf Eichmann, during his trial in Jerusalem for his key role in planning the Holocaust. He hadn’t written the anti-Semitic pamphlets that lay the groundwork for genocide. He didn’t join bloodied ex-veterans in gunning down political enemies in the streets of German cities. Eichmann wasn’t a demonic orator like Hitler, or a master manipulator like Josef Goebbels.
Eichmann was a functionary, a doggedly thorough bureaucrat. When higher-ups set him a task, he turned the whole of his narrow, stunted self to carrying it out. Obsessively, like a machine without an “off” switch. Early on, he was set the task of getting Jews out of Europe, to Palestine. So he worked at that fanatically. When Nazi leaders decided instead to exterminate Jews like insects, Eichmann bloodlessly shifted to that task. He made the trains run on time, not reflecting on whether they were full of coal, or women and children. He obeyed his marching orders, even if they told him to march millions straight into the incinerators.
Not an Iago
As Arendt wrote of this toxic little man:
Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’ Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all … . He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing … . It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is ‘banal’ and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, this is still far from calling it commonplace … . That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man — that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.
The Strutting Cipher from Utah
All of which brings me, quite naturally, to Mitt Romney. The U.S. might very well blunder into a shooting war with Russia. If cities full of civilians get roasted in nuclear fire, Romney is one of the small and thoughtless men who will have caused it. Or we might just lose our Constitutional freedom of speech, and end up one of those countries (like Russia and Ukraine) where political dissidents end up in prison. If we do, Mitt Romney will have a played a larger part than almost anyone. Still, nobody’s likely to name one of our gulags after him. Like a food-smudge in the history books, he’s just too hard to remember.
Mitt Romney has supported every call for aggressive war by the United States since 2001. He backed our disastrous Iraq war, and our nation-building fantasy in Afghanistan. He encouraged our blustering Cold War with a post-Communist Russia, calling it America’s “enemy.” And now he urges reckless escalation over Ukraine, instead of a negotiated peace, which is on the table.
Talking Like a Stasi Kommandant
Even worse, he talks like one of Vladimir Putin’s own secret police about his fellow Americans. For differing with him on foreign policy, he accused the great, independent-minded Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard, of “treason.” Think about that. Legally, to commit treason, you must give “aid and comfort” to a country with whom the U.S. is at war. So in Romney’s mind, we are already at war with a nuclear-armed Russia. In fact, it’s the act of a traitor to try to deescalate the conflict.
That’s not how free countries work. It’s how petty bureaucrats inside the East German Stasi or Nazi Gestapo falsely labeled dissenters, to justify imprisoning them. Yet we have a prominent U.S. senator, embarrassingly a former Republican nominee for president, spouting such poison.
Not Even a Militarist
But I don’t believe that Romney is even a convinced militarist, a jacked-up neocon fantasist who dreams of the U.S. occupying Moscow. Because militarism is, in its own sick way, a principle. And Romney has never shown evidence of holding fast to any political or moral principle at any point in his life. He has, at various points, been pro-abortion and pro-life, aggressively pro-LGBT then tepidly pro-family. He talked up the claims of auto workers when he sought votes in Michigan, then sneered at the working poor when he quipped before a dinner party for millionaires.
Romney seems less like a human being than some lost and frightened cyborg, whose original programming got deleted, so now he seeks a new set of algorithms. Once his calculating faculty concludes that a given set of actions suits his all-consuming ambition, he slides into gear as coolly as lubricated titanium. He sets out to terminate anyone or anything that seems to him an obstacle.
We are a country of free men and women, with the right to speak our minds. If we cannot hear various viewpoints on crucial questions like … yes or no on a nuclear war, then what does that even mean? Is this the “freedom” we claim to champion for Ukraine? Mitt Romney has no answer, because he can’t even understand the question. Those robotic eyes of his look out at us but not at us, as if they were x-raying our bones and scanning our brains.
The only question you’ll ever really see in eyes such as those are “What’s in it for me?”
Jason Jones is a senior contributor to The Stream. He is a film producer, author, activist and human rights worker.