Radical Evil, Torture, Auschwitz, Guantanamo

The revelation of methods of torture used against prisoners at Guantanamo not convicted of criminal acts, and the question of whether the authorization of such methods by the Bush administration constitutes war crimes, remind us of the relevance of philosophical inquiry into the nature of evil that followed upon the unprecedented atrocities spawned by totalitarianism in the 20th century.

Hannah Arendt, in particular, was the philosopher who sought to comprehend what she called the "radical evil" of the Nazi period, as epitomized by the horrors of Auschwitz. According to her, such radical evil involves much more than acting on the basis of "humanly understandable, sinful motives." It involves "making human beings as human beings superfluous"--by eliminating what makes human life distinctively human, nullifying human freedom and moral responsibility. Is not the application of methods of torture that cannot be justified as warranted punishment for crimes shown to be committed an example of such radical evil?

Even more chillingly relevant is Arendt's controversial phrase, "the banality of evil," with which she characterized the actions of the Nazi "desk murderers" like Eichmann, who committed large-scale crimes against humanity. By "banality of evil" she was referring to how monstrously evil acts were committed as if they were "standard behavior" -- mundane, normal activities of everyday life. Think of the cool matter-of-factness with which Cheney speaks of the authorized acts of torture committed at Guantanamo, as if unconvicted prisoners there were no longer human beings with a freedom protected by our moral traditions and laws.