The Banality of Evil

Article excerpt

[FILM]

THE BANALITY OF EVIL

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE

Documentary by Errol Morris (Sony Pictures, 2008)

Review by Karin Luisa Badt

ERROL MORRIS' controversial new documentary Standard Operating Procedure consists of riveting interviews with five of the young men and women responsible for the three months of torture at Abu Ghraib. Positioned to the right of a foggy-grey wide screen, the talking heads gain empyreal stature and eerie visibility as each smiles and discusses the infamous photos. In marked contrast to their open, American faces, serene and grinning, we see the Iraqis covered in black hoods, only their naked bodies apparent. The effect is the reenactment of a hierarchy in which the military personnel are humans playing devilish pranks and the Iraqis are headless beasts.

Yet Morris surprised journalists at the Berlinale premiere by defending these soldiers as "victims" of the media. They received the brunt of the blame, Morris explained, because "the bad apples were convenient to the Bush government" In his words: The movie gives them back their humanity. You may not like what they did, but they are still people."

While Morris says that he would like us to perceive the soldiers as "still people," his own film reveals that they themselves did not perceive their "victims," the Iraqis, as people at all. Emmanuel Levinas argued that the basis of ethics is to regard others as not truly others-"the face is what one cannot IdD"-a premise that has been picked up by Holocaust scholars to explain how Nazis were able to commit genocide and torture. Once you perceive your victim as a faceless non-human, dehumanizing policies are possible. Morris's contribution to the understanding of the Iraq war is to show that the same is true of American soldiers and, by extension, of U.S. military policy-makers.

Sabrina Harman, a grinning blonde young woman with girlish curly locks and soft twangy voice, explaining why she gave a radiant smile and thumbs-up-sign in the photo ofher cradling the bruised head of an Iraqi corpse, quips : "Hey, when you get into a photo, you automatically smile, doncha?" She adds, in a rather numbed tone, "Look I even got some blood on my uniform. I felt kind of bad."

Sabrina, like her colleagues, justifies her behavior with a "just following orders" argument reminiscent of the Nuremburg trials: "It's your job. You can't walk out of this."

What Morris does is expose Abu Ghraib as worse than the pictures, those static glimpses of cruelly, were able to reveal. He brilliantly adds the dimension of time; turning to a photo expert who broke the time-codes of the five divergently clocked cameras and came up with a consistent chronology. Hence we experience the claustrophobic day-in, day-out torture of the hooded prisoners over the course of three months. The soldiers apparently were devising new ways to entertain themselves at the prisoners' expense around-the-clock All of this was masterminded by an older soldier, Charles Graner, with whom two of the women were in love.

One of these women is Lynndie England, the soldier who tugged an Iraqi on a dog-leash. In her testimony, she is more perturbed by the charismatic effect Graner had on her than by her own actions. Not only does she protest that she "wasn't tugging. Look closely, the leash is slack" she speaks of herself as a manipulated victim of heartbreak She would have done anything to please Graner and was outraged when she discovers Graner's involvement with another woman. …