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The Banality of Evil in a Time of Coronavirus

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the concept that she called “the banality of evil,” she was referring to people who are engaged in evil but who actually believe that are engaged in good. They aren’t evil people, Arendt said, just good people who are unwittingly engaged in evil.

You couldn’t find a better term to describe American interventionists who support the U.S. government’s economic sanctions on Iran, especially given how the coronavirus is ravaging the Iranian people.

Defending the continuation of the sanctions under these dire circumstances, sanctions supporters say that the responsibility for excess deaths arising from the sanctions lies with the Iranian regime, not with the U.S. bureaucrats who are dutifully enforcing the sanctions. As soon as Iranian officials capitulate to the demands of U.S. officials or abdicate in favor of a pro-U.S. puppet regime, sanctions supporters say, the sanctions will be lifted.

I have written about this banality of evil long before the coronavirus crisis. See, for example, my articles “The Banality of Evil” (January 2018) and “America’s Banality of Evil” (September 2019). For years, the U.S. government has been inflicting as much pain and suffering on the Iranian people as possible through sanctions. Combined with Iran’s socialist, centrally planned economy, the sanctions have succeeded in wreaking a massive destruction of Iran’s economy.

The aim of inflicting all this devastation and suffering? To squeeze the life out of the Iranian people as a way to secure either regime change or obedience to U.S. orders on the part of the current Iranian regime.

Throughout the suffering, the mindset of U.S. officials has been the same. They’re just doing their job. They are just enforcing sanctions. They are protecting America. The entire responsibility, they say, lies with recalcitrant Iranian officials.

The coronavirus hits

I never figured that their banality of evil could get worse than that.

And then the coronavirus hit,  which only proved how wrong I was. Their banality of evil is now much worse. It has confirmed the stultified consciences that afflict American interventionists, many of whom love to wear their Christian bonafides on their sleeves.

Iran is the Middle East country that has been hit hardest by the coronavirus. According to an April 12 Reuters article, it now has 71,686 cases, with a death toll of 4,474. Ten thousand graves have been dug in a cemetery south of Tehran to deal with anticipated deaths.

The coronavirus is like a dream-come-true for sanctions supporters. In their minds, as the death toll rises, the greater the chance of a regime change in Iran or capitulation by Iranian officials. There are no sympathies for the massive loss of life being suffered by the Iranian people. On the contrary, the large death toll provides hope to U.S. officials and U.S. interventionists that “victory” over Iran appears closer than ever.

Stultified consciences

Notice something important: There is no upper limit on the death toll in Iran that would cause sanctions supporters to change their position and support the lifting of their deadly sanctions. The coronavirus could kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Iranians and that wouldn’t matter one whit to the people who are supporting sanctions. In their minds, it would all be “worth it.”

That of course was the term that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations used when asked about the sanctions that were being enforced against Iraq during the 1990s. The CBS television show Sixty Minutes asked Madeleine Albright whether the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children from the sanctions was worth it. She responded that while the issue was a difficult one, yes, the deaths were in fact “worth it.”

By “it,” she was referring to regime change in Iraq, where U.S. officials were engaged in a regime-change operation against Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. Ironically, he had been a partner and ally of U.S. officials in the 1980s when he was waging a war against Iran, a war in which Saddam was illegally employing chemical weapons that the U.S. had furnished him (see here and here).

Not coincidentally, U.S officials took the same position back then with Iraq that they are taking today with Iran. They said that the responsibility for the deaths of all those Iraqi children lay with Saddam, not with U.S. officials. That’s because, they steadfastly maintained, the sanctions would be immediately lifted if Saddam were to immediately abdicate.

What better term than “banality of evil” to describe that? When are the deaths of children ever worth anything, much less regime change?

Like with Iran today, U.S. officials maintain that they have no problems with people helping the Iranian people with medicines and humanitarian aid. They are being false and disingenuous. If anyone is caught helping the Iranian people in any way, make no mistake about it: U.S. officials will go after him or her with a vengeance. Nothing — absolutely nothing — will be permitted to interfere with the goal of the sanctions, which is to kill as many people as possible until the Iranian regime capitulates or abdicates.

The heroism of Bert Sachs

Don’t forget, after all, what they did to American citizen Bert Sachs. Stricken by conscience, Sachs took medicine and other essentials into Iraq to help the Iraqi people. U.S. officials went after him with an Ahab-like obsession. They fined him $10,000 and then spent several years trying to collect it, not only to teach Sachs a lesson but also to send a message to his fellow American citizens: Don’t even think about it or we will come after you as well.

To his everlasting credit, Sachs refused to pay the fine and continued refusing to pay the fine, which only made U.S officials angrier. After many years of trying to forcibly collect their fine, Sachs beat them and they never got their money. U.S. officials went home with their tails between their legs, all the while convinced that they were being good guys in going after Sachs. (See my many articles that I have written about the heroism of Bert Sachs.)

Throughout their obsessive and vengeful pursuit of Bert Sachs, U.S. officials were as convinced they were doing good as they were in contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, just as they are convinced that they are doing good today by contributing to the high death toll in Iran. Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil” fits sanctions supporters to a T.

The post The Banality of Evil in a Time of Coronavirus appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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About The Author

Jacob G. Hornberger

The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government. Visit

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