Tag Archives: nazi doctors

Malignant Normality

In an essay published in the Spring 2017 issue of Dissent, Robert Jay Lifton reminds us that the same ethical distortions that he discerned among physicians in Nazi Germany may occur among other groups of professionals at any time. Excerpts below, with a few malignantly normal charts from Stanley Milgram’s Obedience To Authority.









We are reminded also of a passage (slightly edited by DP for continuity) from a letter written in 1964 by Hannah Arendt to Gerhard Scholem:

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.


Genocidal Direction



Now comes Navy Captain Robert Durand, who reports that efforts to convince medical professionals to cease all assistance in the force feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay have failed to gain ethical traction. “They signed up to carry out lawful orders,” said Capt. Durand, adding “This is a lawful order.” He then went on to say, “We do it to preserve life.”

One hardly knows where to start with such twisted declarations. Did these medical professionals not also “sign up” to a professional ethos generally understood to mandate that they do no harm to any individual who comes under their care? Also, on what basis is Capt. Durand claiming legality for the order? Military chain of command? Finally, if “life” is understood to center around the conscious volition of the subject, and that subject explicitly wishes to cease eating, then does not forced feeding actually subtract from or even terminate– the life of the subject?



In any event, the notion that national law (as embodied, say, in certain imperatives of an invented or manipulated national security) cancels professional ethics has a long history to which we doubt Capt. Durand would like to find himself attached. To refresh our understanding of the psychology behind such thinking, we pulled out a well-worn copy of Robert Jay Lifton’s extraordinary study of Nazi doctors, above all his final chapter on the psychology of genocide (slightly re-formatted below, for readability):

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As an alternative to the “genocidal direction”, Lifton goes on to discuss the “prophylaxis” of the “embodied self”:

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 4.44.40 PMProtections against the “machine” of “national security” requires a clear ethical detachment that supports the embodied self, while also supporting an individual capacity for empathy, a quality that appears to be totally absent within the regime of Guantanamo indefinite detention.

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We close with a poem written in 2007 by Adnan Latif, found dead in his cell in 2012, purportedly from a drug overdose attributed to a “procedural error” :

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starving for justice