Unattended Machines

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s collection of reports from Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem recently and that was a very deliberate choice, given the current administration. While I find chauvinist ethno-nationalisms to be overwhelmingly similar in behavior and consequences, this is not because I want to compare the Trump administration to the Nazis (. . . yet). I’m reading about Eichmann because he was a bureaucrat.

The stories about ICE’s activities (aka raids, whatever legalese ICE prefers) across the country have been soul deadening. Rumors were everywhere when the raids first started, making it worse than it appeared, but it has still been pretty bad. There were arrests outside of churches and other “sensitive locations” (which they aren’t supposed to do). This has sown fear among immigrant communities. Immigration check-ins have become deportations. People ostensibly protected by an existing executive order are harassed and detained (and accused of gang ties for good measure). There is even an appalling case of a domestic abuse victim being detained at her court appearance for an order of protection against her abuser . . . the one who probably reported her to ICE.

ICE’s raids are disturbing enough, but the actions of Customs and Border Protection in the wake of Trump’s illegal executive order was just as bad. CPB agents refused to talk to members of Congress. Agents reportedly continued to detain people even as the first wave of court orders was rolling in. The reports of ancillary abuses are equally distressing, from targeting people from countries not on the list, to demanding access to social media accounts from citizens, residents, and green card holders, to detaining former heads of foreign government for visits to Iran. This was the aggressive implementation of aggressive policy by faceless bureaucrats who have way more power than most people realize and who have just been authorized to increase their use of it.

Irony is there for anyone who wants it. The right yells about wanting to be more in charge of their lives instead of “the government” all the time, it’s shouted constantly and is believed with the feverish intensity of tent revival religion . . . including by many minor functionaries of the government, often those who have actually used that power to harass, intimidate and otherwise stress people (and not so minor functionaries in say, the FBI). They are themselves the problem they have been taught to rage against. Fox News erases itself as media when it attacks the media as something other than what they say and it also erases the people who work for the government from the government. Naturally, people who work for the government understand ALL too well how dysfunctional and unaccountable thick layers of bureaucracy can be (full disclosure: the vast majority of my family works or has worked for the federal government), but the greatest trick Fox News ever pulled was making people hate a thing they are a part of by making it so unrecognizable that they fail to see themselves in it.

The rhetoric of law and order is inevitably aimed at making people feel afraid and empowering law enforcement to be more aggressive about how they do their job. This is how we get “the War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror,” both unlimited campaigns with no end in sight (arguably, that is the point). Fox News has been convincing people, for years, that law enforcement is being held back by those pesky civilians and their political correctness and their “civil rights.” 45’s administration, specifically A.G. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly are telling core parts of the federal system that they are off the leash.

I find this constellation extremely troubling. This may be superfluous for my theater and movie people, but the dictum for creators has always been that your villains should always believe that they are doing the right thing. Evil is more convincing, and scarier, when villains are true believers in a good cause. The overwhelming lesson of Hannah Arendt’s reportage on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem is that great evil is committed by people who are not exceptional in any way. They are not responsible for the vast machinery they serve. They did not put it into motion, they did not fuel it, they don’t even think they believe in it. Eichmann didn’t feel any particular hatred for Jews, at least not to his mind. He was doing them a favor by facilitating their emigration from a place that clearly didn’t want them. This morphed into forcibly deporting them to destinations like death camps, but he was still just doing his best to help Jews out, given the constraints of his superiors.

The most terrifying thing about ICE’s behavior is that they almost certainly believe they are doing the best thing for America by breaking up families and disrupting the lives of people who have been here for decades. ICE and DHS will try to mollify us by tarring people with the brush of criminality, often for minor things that they were not even in a position to contest, railroaded by a system that dangles plea-bargains when people can’t afford to make bail. ICE did not invent Islamophobia or racism and most ICE agents would never describe themselves that way. They would most likely say that they are just doing their jobs.

America is not yet burning the corpses of people we have gassed to death in vans and we are a long way from that. But we are not immune to that kind of insanity and it is much, much close than many of us want to believe. Evil doesn’t show up as a gore bespattered husk of a human being baying for your blood in the streets. Evil shows up as a harassed functionary with a million things to do, just trying to do their job as efficiently as possible.

I recently worked at a theater that had installed motorized winches without any safety features. The install tech was adamant about one thing: you must have eyes on the battens. The difference between the motors and a human being, he told us, is that when the motors encounter resistance, they won’t stop. They are just a machine doing what it is told . . . in the process they can destroy themselves, your theater, a whole bunch of people . . . and, if you’ll pardon the blunt injection of metaphor, maybe your country, if you aren’t paying attention.

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