Jane Mayer: Calling Hannah Arendt (The New Yorker)
The mind-numbing bureaucratic details displayed in the documents released last week on the Bush Administration’s abusive detention program sent wise commentators, such as The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin, to Hannah Arendt, the mother of all war-crime writers. Her observations, first published in this magazine, on what she eventually dubbed the “banality of evil,” exhibited by the Nazis’ tidy, carefully monitored control of the Final Solution, are, sadly, timeless.
This is not to suggest that there is any moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Bush Administration. That would be absurd. Nevertheless, as C.I.A. bureaucrats debated the appropriate temperature of the water with which they planned to fill the lungs of captives or the number of times prisoners could be propelled head-first into a plywood wall (“twenty to thirty times consecutively”), it’s hard not to have renewed appreciation for Arendt.
There is also a less famous observation by Arendt, made in The New York Review of Books in the wake of the protests of 1968 and shared with me by Georgetown Law professor David Luban, that captures the problem faced by the Obama Administration in its attempt to hold the right officials accountable. She calls it the “rule by Nobody.” Attorney General Eric Holder is stuck trying to investigate an entire bureaucracy. Those on the top can claim to have clean hands, while those on the bottom can claim they were following ostensibly legal orders. What’s left, Arendt suggests, is an all-powerful government that is beyond accountability.
Here’s what she wrote:
These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.