© 2010 Wade Rowland
If a long career in journalism has taught me anything about watching and reading the news, it is that the details of any story that can be described as “horrific” are best avoided. They usually teach nothing worth learning, and they can leave a permanent, toxic residue in the mind and spirit.
These days I teach mass media literacy to university students, and in preparing for my undergraduate class last Friday, I felt I had no choice but to say something about the story on everyone’s mind, the Raymond Williams trial. That drove me to spend some time immersed in the detail of the story. I looked at a transcript of Russell Williams’ courtroom statement of apology, the interrogation/confession tapes released in court, and his hand-written letters to the victims’ families.
I discovered that in this case, the horror was instructive—not in itself, but in Williams’ own, surreal attitude to it.
As everyone knows by now, a remarkable feature of the interrogation tapes is the long, long pauses as Williams is confronted by his wonderfully skilled antagonist with a crescendo of evidence connecting him to his murders. A CBC radio reporter who watched them in court said, “You could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he was thinking, sometimes for minutes, without speaking.” To me, though, it seemed that he was silent precisely because he was not thinking…because his mind was blank.
When he did speak, Williams had nothing to say. When asked why he had committed the murders, he said, he didn’t know. When asked “What were you thinking at the time?” he had no answer. His brilliant OPP interrogator, who spent many hours in conversation with him, says he has been left with no clue as to Williams’ motivation.
Williams’ letters of apology are grotesquely, spectacularly inadequate. They are full of platitudinous, clichéd language and mind-boggling fatuity. This, intended to comfort the mother of 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd: “I am sorry for having taken your daughter from you…I know she loved you very much—she told me so, again and again.” Ernest Comeau is told, “I am sorry for having taken your daughter, Marie-France from you….Marie-France has been deeply missed by all that knew her.” To his wife of 19 years he wrote, “I am very sorry for having hurt you like this. I know you’ll take good care of Rosie (their cat).”
His apology to the court read like it had been written by a team at Hallmark Cards, so grossly inadequate was it to the monstrousness of his crimes.
I have advised my students to do whatever the can to avoid seeing or hearing details of Williams’ murders and assaults. But I did suggest that they look at the interrogation tape, and read the courtroom apology and the letters. In them, it seems to me, there is much to be learned about the nature of evil—something worth knowing about. The key is to see them in the context of the writings of one of the last century’s eminent moral philosophers, Hannah Arendt.
Fifty years ago Arendt was asked by the New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of one of the modern era’s most notorious criminals, Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann, who organized the transport of millions of Jews to the Nazi murder factories, had been captured by Israeli agents in Argentina, and transported to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity. He was in due course convicted of crimes against humanity, and hanged. Arendt’s coverage was serialized in the magazine, and published in 1963 as the best-seller Eichmann In Jerusalem.
While the Israeli prosecutors sought to portray Eichmann as a monster during the trial, Arendt, the philosopher, saw something else, something even more disturbing. She saw a man whom even the platoon of psychologists who examined him, and his many police interrogators, had confessed to finding bafflingly “ordinary.”
Eichmann himself claimed to have no particular animus against the Jews—he was merely doing a job, angling for promotion. He aspired to the success of his nattily-uniformed superiors within bureaucracy of the SS. In the deranged ethical environment of Nazi Germany, Arendt suggested, it was no great challenge for him to avoid examining his life, to avoid reflection on what he was doing in his day-to-day job of efficiently organizing genocide.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann was not a monster, and that it was dangerously misguided to dismiss him as merely a grossly aberrant moral freak. He was, in fact, a buffoon—a dolt, willfully incapable of thinking beyond the rules and regulations and the culture of his military unit. A talkative man, he was nevertheless incapable of expressing himself in anything but the clichés his mind scavenged, more or less at random, in his limited reading and in gleanings from conversation of his superior officers. “The longer one listened to him,” she wrote, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak [i.e. to communicate] was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”
Beneath the gallows, his last words were a standard Nazi affirmation of atheism and disbelief in an afterlife, followed by a hackneyed bit of funeral oration: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” The “grotesque silliness” of his last words were the provocation that led Arendt to subtitle her book with the now-iconic phrase, “the banality of evil.”
A decade after her book was published, Arendt wrote a reflective essay for the journal Social Research that again raised the question of Eichmann’s doltish thoughtlessness, and placed it in a wider context of the possible connection between thinking and morality. She asked, “Is evildoing…possible in the absence of not merely ‘base motives’ (as the law calls it) but of any motives at all, any particular prompting interest or volition?”
In other words, she wanted to know, “Is our ability to judge, to tell right from wrong beautiful from ugly, dependent upon our faculty of thought? Do the inability to think and the disastrous failure of what we commonly call conscience coincide?” And further, “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?”
She is not talking about wickedness here, about crimes and misdemeanours that can call up some sort of justification, however venal, but about evil, the kind of motiveless, inexplicable, and therefore especially frightening crime committed by “… the nonwicked everybody who has no special motives and for this reason is capable of infinite evil….”
Arendt eventually answers each of the questions she raises in the affirmative, drawing on her deep knowledge of two millennia of moral philosophy, from Socrates to her contemporaries in Europe and America. Conscience, she concludes, is a product of the inner dialogue we call thinking—without that dialogue, conscience is absent.
Thinking, she says, “is not a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the ‘prerogative’ of those many who lack brain power but the ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered.”
In Eichmann, Arendt saw a careerist who was able to support his shallowness through reliance on stock phrases and clichés, on bureaucratese and jargon—through willing immersion in a culture of heedless, mindless, obedience.
In Russell Williams’ apparent inability to respond to the simplest questions about his motives and feelings, in his simple-minded, almost childish letters and statements of apology, it may be that we are seeing another non-thinking “specialist” who has willfully chosen not to think, and whose working and living environment permitted him to succeed regardless.
Senior Canadian Forces officers assert that they have been through Williams’ personnel file with a fine-toothed comb, and are at a loss to understand how it was that he was being congratulated by his superiors for sterling performance as Trenton’s Base Commander at the same time as he was well into his career of rape and murder. They are, they confess, completely baffled.
Perhaps there is a clue for them in Arendt’s inquiries into the nature of evil as it presents itself in the modern age. Perhaps there is something in the nature of the institution that provided him an opportunity to progress through the ranks to leadership and success that, at the same time, supported a habit of non-thinking.
Thinking, as more or less idle speculation on whatever grasps the imagination is, after all, of no practical, economic value, and is therefore not cultivated in institutions geared to efficiency and productivity. Or as Arendt puts it: “…thinking as such does society very little good, much less than the thirst for knowledge in which it is used as an instrument for other purposes. It does not create values, it will not find out, once and for all, what ‘the good’ is and it does not confirm but rather dissolves accepted rules of conduct.”
What thinking does do is to “bring out the implications in unexamined opinions and thereby destroys them—values, doctrines theories, and even convictions…”. And this creative destruction has a liberating affect on the faculty of judgment, which is its most precious value. “Judging, the by-product of the liberating effect of thinking, realizes thinking, makes it manifest in the world of appearances….The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.”
“And this,” Arendt concludes, “indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.”
Confined to a prison cell for the rest of his life, Williams will now have plenty of opportunity to think, to reflect, to entertain the inter dialogue we call conscience, to dwell on his twin careers as respected military officer and serial rapist and killer. We can only hope that he will one day come to some conclusions that will be of use to the rest of us in our puzzlement over the phenomenon of ordinary people who flourish within our bureaucratic, regimented, hyper-efficient institutions, be they military or corporate, and who commit extraordinary crimes.