The irony, of course, is that we can only convey the unspeakable (horrifying, inhumane, unworthy of existing) nature of a particular evil by speaking about it. Arendt notes that once something new is brought into the world, for good or ill, it is part of that world and may not be undone. It must be made comprehensible, which risks making it less than evil, that the act of explicating what is now before us will become an exculpation of the evil itself.
One of the better attempts to explicate, but not exculpate, what happened is LTC Bob Bateman's story today on Altercation.
Fort Hood, Texas, Summer 1995:Please take time to read the rest of LTC Bateman's post. It is not long and it will make you think.
Private Ericsson was the blond-haired blue-eyed epitome of American youth. A little older than his peers at 22, he was often the first to speak up when I called for a response. In this case I had just put forward the question, “What would you do?” to a hypothetical situation in which several prisoners had been captured who may, or may not, know about an ambush the enemy had emplaced for our unit some distance away. The prisoners appeared to be civilians, taken in a village from which we had, in this notional scenario, recently taken fire.
“I’d shoot one of them sir, to see if it got the next one to talk,” said Ericsson with a perfectly straight face.
Haditha, the deliberate murder of people who happened to be nearby, is unspeakable evil both because it occured and because it is being accompanied by concerted effort to exculpate those responsible. In the end, the murders were done in our name and in the performance of our military action against a country that had not done us harm.
The responsibility begins with the Marines who pumped bullets into the bodies of children, the youngest victim being about 1 year of age. It goes on to those Marines who did not take lives but who particiapted in the cover up, from the men who did not stop their comrades from murder to the last officer with certain knowledge of the massacre and who chose to look the other way.
The responsibility continues up the "chain of command" to Bush. According to news reports, he claims he had no idea about the Haditha massacre when Time magazine reporters called the White House for comment. Now, either this is a lie, and the White House is complicit in the cover up, or it is the truth, and the White House doesn't consider the butchering of a few dozen civilians, including small children, by American troops to be worth noticing. Either situation is damning.
There is no exculpation for any of these people. They are guilty of crimes against humanity. The higher up the ladder you go, the more abstract this guilt becomes, but it is greater for being one instance among many.
What of responsibility beyond the chain which binds the military and the civilian leadership together in atrocity? Any who try to justify the murder of unarmed civilians as revenge for the death of a soldier is engaging in evil. In their assaults upon those who condemn the murders, declaring evil to be the ground of patriotism and threatening violence against those who reject atrocity, these people are fully, willingly complicit in evil. Trying to invert the atrocity - to make a virtue of an abomination - reenacts the murder of the innocents.
And what of the bulk of the American public who hears of this on the TV or reads a news article, yet remains silent? "But what can I do to stop this? I'm not the President. I can't order soldiers around, or call a halt to the war." No, you can't. But you voted this administration into power in 2004, knowing full well what was being done in your name. You fret about your Democratic candidates not being "exciting" or "liberal" enough, knowing full well that there is no hope of slowing the insanity, let alone stopping it, unless control of Congress is wrested from the Rethuglicans. What is the price of your tax cut? Of your tough sounding rhetoric? Of your contempt for "squishy" politics? Of your ennui?
The price is a three year old girl clasped in her mother's arms with a bullet through her brain.
And that is unspeakable evil.