Tuesday, January 16, 2007


When Hannah Arendt published her pivotal, prototypic and controversial [when juxtaposed against her previous publications] "Eichmann in Jerusalem" in 1963 she argued her famous "banality of evil" thesis - that people committing atrocities need not be inherently bad but may be influenced by an ideology or a set of codes. Because they are good "bureaucrats" they abide by rules, principles and orders thereby committing crimes.

Seeing the atrocities that occur on a daily basis at Iraq -United Nations announced today the death toll for Iraqis to be 34,000 for 2006- I cannot help but question what is that has made "evil" look like a "banality" in the lives [and hence the culture] of a people. Conversely, what sort of "banality" is this, which spurs an almost routinized coverage of Iraq by media and non-media actors, an awfully repetitive sorrow-dominated vocabulary to politicians and officials of any sort and a "yet again" or "not again" [at best] reaction to "innocent, powerless" civilians, if not of "evil"?

A great paradox and virtue of language is this, namely that it allows one to play games with words, to deconstruct phrases and to create wholly new and different meanings based on a word or two. Language can also downplay or increase the importance of virtual anything simply through wise word choice and word ordering. But numbers, are not like that; numbers cannot get dressed up to look "good" or "sloppy", they are destined to carry the naked version of the story - whatever this story maybe.

It so comes that 94 is the number for Iraq. If 34,000 was difficult to comprehend, the fact that this figure translates to 94 people being killed every single day at Iraq may help those not handling easily big figures, myself included. Early on we learn also that metaphors help, as they render our speech or writings clearer. Strikingly painful as it may appear, and it is, 94 dead Iraqis is almost like if a Boeing 737 crashed everyday or if the entire grade six of a 564 elementary school disappeared again and again and again every single day of the calendar year - rain or shine.

It almost causes shame to me the fact that I dared to quantify in this most disgraceful and dishonorable manner human life. And as I am about to delete my previous statement, I decide I will not - I think it does much less justice to victims to refuse to refer to their plight; it is much too hypocritical and shameful to aspire to a Pontius Pilate attitude when we all have some share of responsibility for the atrocities on the Iraqi soil. Unfortunately, few of us have the excuse of "abiding by an ideology" and fewer still are "the good bureaucrats" exercising at our best the civil duties entrusted to us.

That 94 people die everyday at Iraq because of the mess calls, once more, for urgent action. Much advocacy still focuses on "an end to the war". Will that suffice? Most journalists and experts signal otherwise; they talk about a possible splitting of Iraq into three states and they allude to further bloodshed. Even the most optimist would agree that the current state of Iraq is one of utter fragility and instability and that no deus ex machina can bring this tragedy to a bloodless conclusion. Regardless of the course of affairs at Iraq what seems clear is that we, non-Iraqis, are not entitled to any more mistakes, to any more gambling of human lives in our futile attempt to transform "vision" into action. Our duty is to help: may we be fortunate to find ways to assist - not to absolve ourselves from our atrocities, but, simply to decrease suffering. And to lower this damned 94.

References and Links:

in English: Blasts kill at least 70 in Baghdad; U.N. reports 34,000 Iraqis died in '06

en Français: Irak: plus de 100 morts dans des violences, 34.000 civils tués en 2006

an interesting study of Arendt's "banality of evil" in the context of fear is to be found in Corey Robin "Fear: The History of a Political Idea" (Oxford: OUP, 2004).


M. Atitar de la Fuente said...

Our reaction has turned banal too: now, 94 deaths in Irak is "normal"

rosemary said...

This is so shocking it actually makes me feel ashamed for doing nothing whenever I think about it (and I think about it pretty often)... I recently read a book by C. West, "Democracy Matters", in which he discusses democracy in the US and US foreign policy in the Middle East from a very interesting perspective...

stratos said...

Από ό,τι διάβασα στην Καθημερινή 23/12/06 η Ράις έκανε μια δήλωση ότι "Αξιζε η επένδυση σε ζωές στο Ιράκ". Όταν ακούς τέτοιες δηλώσεις, και δεν πέφτει ο κόσμος να πλακώσει αυτόν που τις κάνει, όλα να τα περιμένεις.

AC Stranger said...

Well well, welcome to reality. I've got four words for you dear...

Democracy Made in USA.

Iraq gets what it deserves, after all they are an axis in Axis of Evil.

Anastasia Konstantakatou said...

ac stranger: are you not a little harsh here?

AC Stranger said...

No, i think USA should soon come over here too and solve Greece's problems once for all. No more rockets being launched at embassies, no more anarchists, no more communist parties.

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