Leonard Pitts: Cruelty is the point, but are practices also evil?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 29, 2019

By Leonard Pitts

We meet, my friends, in the face of evil.

In popular culture and historical memory, of course, evil has many faces. It is Darth Vader raising a lightsaber and Dr. Doom glowering from behind a metal mask. It is Charles Manson grinning his lunatic’s grin and Adolf Hitler ranting himself into a frothing rage.

But in everyday life, evil is seldom so obvious or loud. In everyday life, evil is the face of a man balancing a briefcase and a cup of designer coffee, the face of a woman buying groceries. It is the face of nothing to see here and going along to get along, the face of doing my job and just following orders.

And it is, too, the face of all of us, no one hand on the wheel, no one person accountable, the face of everyone responsible and thus, no one to blame.

So here’s a story you might have missed last week, what with Donald Trump trying to buy Greenland and declaring himself “the chosen one” and all. It seems the United States will not be giving flu vaccinations to migrant families it holds in cages.

This, despite the fact that doctors and public health officials are urging that inoculations be administered. And despite the fact that flu has contributed to the deaths of at least three children in U.S. custody since December.

Including those who died from other or unknown causes, this makes six children who have perished in — or right after release from — U.S. custody. Before 2018, it had been about a decade since a child died while being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“In general, due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and the complexities of operating vaccination programs,” the agency explained in a written statement, “neither CBP nor its medical contractors administer vaccinations to those in our custody.”

CBP notes that this is nothing new; it has never offered vaccinations.

But it has never held so many people in such close and unsanitary conditions, either. And as for “short term:” unaccompanied children are supposed to remain in custody no longer than 72 hours. They are routinely being held days, and even weeks, longer, in filthy, standing-room-only cages with concrete floors.

There is something niggardly and petty about the meanness, something entirely consonant with the values — if we may use that word — of an administration that argued against providing its captives toothpaste and soap. That shrugged off an 11-year-old girl crying for her father after he was swept up in an ICE raid in Mississippi. That was unmoved by the sight of a man and his toddler daughter, face down in the Rio Grande. The cruelty, as they say, is the entire point. But is it evil?

You might say it isn’t, according to what the word connotes in popular culture and historical memory. But those connotations paint an incomplete picture.

Consider Hannah Arendt’s famous book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, coined a term that become controversial, if not notorious: “the banality of evil.”

Arendt would later explain that by it, she meant that she found no “diabolical or demonic profundity” in Eichmann. He was, she felt, a “desk murderer” who, at a fundamental level, lacked the imagination to even conceive of the crime he was committing.

He just did his job. He just followed orders.

Something to bear in mind as our government of the people inflicts needless cruelties upon the vulnerable and the dispossessed.

After all, evil puts its pants on one leg at a time, just like you and I.

Evil fixes breakfast. Evil gets the kids off to school.

And then, evil goes to work.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.