Contagious Courage; Countering the Banality of Evil

More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt made an observation about aspects of human nature that people often fail to acknowledge or confront. Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power, survived to witness the trial of German Nazi Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. She pointed to wartime atrocities where dutiful administrators like Eichmann become mass murderers seemingly with no regret or even conscious recognition of the routine horror they inflicted. She called it the “banality of evil” — a systemic evil that has become “terrifyingly normal”.

Fascism comes in all shapes and forms. The late comedian George Carlin once pointed out that when fascism comes to America, it will not be in “brown and black shirts” or “jack boots”, but will be in “Nike sneakers and smiley shirts”. With NSA mass surveillance and the recent Senate CIA torture report evidencing murder of innocent people in offshore U.S. prisons, a kind of systematic evil is secretly being carried out within present day society.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (2012) predicted this banality of evil in the digital age, alerting us to how the internet has been transformed into a “threat to human civilization” (p. 1). In his recent book When Google Met WikiLeaks (2014), Assange exposed Google’s part in the hijacking of large swaths of the Internet for surveillance in collusion with the U.S. government. He pointed out how by getting close to Washington halls of power, this Silicon Valley tech giant lost the “language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing” (p. 60).

The smiley face of modern oppression is quietly being integrated into our everyday reality. There are some who came to recognize the changing scenery and found they could not stay silent. These are whistleblowers who have witnessed the seeds of corruption and official wrongdoing grow out of control into the now ubiquitous evil surrounding us all.

The Contagion of Courage

The disclosures by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have revealed the alarming level of abuse of power through corporations and governments that often collude in war crimes and mass surveillance. Here we find the other side of the banality of evil, a story of resistance carried by those awakening in the midst of the terrifying normal. It all started with one person’s courage. In September 2013, Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia paid homage to Chelsea Manning for her role in inspiring the Arab Spring. He said the revolution “had to start somewhere, and the release of the cables started with Private Chelsea Manning, alone in the Iraqi desert”.

Manning’s act became a catalyst for various uprisings and also paved the way for other whistleblowers to courageously step forward. In recent years, the world saw a new wave of dissent. Political activist Jeremy Hammond hacked into Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, the private Texas based global intelligence company and exposed the inner workings of the insidious and pervasive surveillance state, including their spying activities on activists around the globe. At his sentencing hearing, Hammond spoke of how his act was inspired by his forerunner, Chelsea Manning and especially her courage in exposing the atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan:

“She took an enormous personal risk to leak this information — believing that the public had a right to know and hoping that her disclosures would be a positive step to end these abuses … I had to ask myself, if Chelsea Manning fell into the abysmal nightmare of prison fighting for the truth, could I in good conscience do any less, if I was able? I thought the best way to demonstrate solidarity was to continue the the work of exposing and confronting corruption”.

Another who has seen inside the growing surveillance dystopia was journalist Barrett Brown, who is now in jail as a part of the criminalization of the press. He had been investigating private government cyber-security contractors. Then it all blew out into the open with Edward Snowden. In a video interview that went viral, the world saw and heard a clear headed, well-spoken man who left his life behind to expose pervasive, global government spying programs. Snowden spoke of the motives behind his action:

“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity…. My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Before Snowden, there were four former National Security Agency analysts who rang the alarm about widespread government surveillance: Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis. John Kiriakou became the first CIA officer to give evidence of the use of torture, (which was confirmed by the recent Senate CIA report) and he was sent to jail for calling this torture unconstitutional.

All these brave individuals were driven by a common belief that the public always has a right to know about the actions and wrongdoings of governments and corporations. They stepped forward and sacrificed their safety to bring vital information to the light of day. One person’s brave action leads to another. This exposure of NSA abuse of power would not have been possible without the integrity of a particularly brave woman. Laura Poitras, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, was the first media contact on the Snowden story. She was then joined by Glenn Greenwald, now a leading journalist in NSA reporting. Greenwald spoke of how he was inspired by Snowden’s deed:

“….To watch what he did…. because he knows exactly how the government treats whistleblowers, and yet he went forward and did it anyway. And what I really hope is that his courage is contagious, that people get inspired by his example, as I have been, and decide that they ought to demand that their rights not be abridged and that they have the full authority to stand up to the United States government without being afraid.”

The WikiLeaks motto, “courage is contagious” has proven to be true. Snowden admired Manning and learned from his young forerunner. Poitras and Greenwald were both inspired by Manning and Snowden’s contagious courage. The allegiance to ordinary people and their right to determine their future was ignited and carried as a new torch with the NSA revelations.

Snowden’s Great Escape

Immediately after the first NSA stories were published and Snowden revealed himself as the source behind the largest classified disclosure in history, calls for aggressive prosecution rolled out from Washington, with high officials denouncing his act as treason.

After the U.S. filed espionage charges against Snowden, his courageous deed called out a similar response in others. As extradition threats grew and U.S. manhunt began, Snowden found himself stranded in Hong Kong. He then reached out to WikiLeaks and the stateless publisher of last resort stepped up to help him escape the clutches of the U.S. government.

While the rescue was underway, Julian Assange urged countries to stand up for him and defend his rights:

“The effort to find asylum for Edward Snowden must be intensified. What brave country will stand up for him, and recognize his service to humanity? Tell your governments to step forward. Step forward and stand with Snowden.”

This willingness to stand up to the United States pressuring of other countries came from south of the equator. Venezuela indicated that they would consider an asylum request if asked and Ecuador stepped forward to call Washington out on its hypocrisy. Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño held a press conference on Snowden’s asylum request. Upon stating Ecuador’s commitment to the right of asylum and to the principles of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, he raised questions regarding the U.S. government’s treatment of whistleblowers like Snowden as traitors.

Snowden’s pursuit for asylum created a new discourse. Behind this astonishing and inspiring success story, there were other unsung courageous heroes. Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks showed extraordinary bravery in stepping in to help him escape from Hong Kong and imminent extradition to the United States. When the U.S. government revoked Snowden’s passport and trapped him in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Harrison stayed with him at the transit zone in a room without windows and shower for 39 days, assisting him with his legal applications for asylum. She remained with him for three more months after he was granted for temporary asylum.

Harrison, who Snowden called an “utterly fearless journalist”, spoke of her commitment to source protection:

“When whistleblowers come forward, we need to fight for them so others will be encouraged. When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them.”

Referring specifically to Manning, who is now serving 35 years behind bars, Harrison explained the reason for risking her life and freedom to accompany Snowden thus: “There needs to be another narrative … There needs to be a happy ending. People need to see that you can do this and be safe.”

In a Live Q&A, Snowden also acknowledged the role that Ecuadorean Consul in London, Fidel Narvaez played by risking his job to protect Snowden’s rights. Thanks to extraordinary support from those with courage, integrity and commitment to justice, Snowden found asylum in Moscow and to this day he continues to participate in the debate that he triggered.

The War of Terror Doctrine:

Whistleblowers are people that attend to deep immorality and crimes of those in power that others fail to see. In witnessing illegality, injustice and abuse of power, those who chose to follow their conscience didn’t turn away. Instead, they faced it with clarity of thought. They were fully aware of the risks, moved beyond fear and chose to act with courage. In her chat log, Manning indicated how she was ready to go to prison for the rest of her life or even be executed for releasing the documents.

In the video interview where he made his first public appearance, Snowden addressed the threat of retaliation. “You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk.” He continued, “they’re such powerful adversaries” and it seems “no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time”. Snowden told the Guardian reporter in Moscow that if he ends up being in chains in Guantanamo Bay, he can live with that.

Despite this immanent danger, he was determined to make the information public. He expressed his profound sense of obligation when he said: “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

What made these truth-tellers courageously confront these government and corporate crimes? And conversely, what makes the vast majority of citizens obedient or even give tacit Eichmann-like support for the banality of evil, allowing it to devour human values that many of us cherish so deeply?

In investigating the crucial role that German doctors played in the Nazi genocide, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1986) observed a “‘psychic numbing,’ a general category of diminished capacity or inclination to feel” (p. 442). He described how prior to Auschwitz death camps, Nazis set a policy of direct medical killing and the program called “euthanasia” was carried out by the doctors. Lifton noted the mentality that prevailed among psychiatrists who took part in this as “the doctrine of the absence of empathy” (p. 113). He recognized how the Nazi-Auschwitz ideology of anti-Jewishness used the simple concept of “life unworthy of life” as justification for killing them.

Our current smiley-face fascism has indoctrinated us into extreme American exceptionalism in the post-911 world and makes us accept previously inconceivable realities of torture, mass surveillance and brutal murder with Orwellian doublespeak like “enhanced interrogation”, “bulk collection” and “collateral damage”. The Bush Era doctrine of “War on Terror” spreads the same old fearful ideology of hatred, this time of Muslims and also branding anyone that stands in the way of US hegemony as “terrorists”.

Like most of us, Manning and Snowden were at one time swept up in these official narratives that have lead us to the banality of evil of our time. Early on, Manning herself believed the rhetoric of Operation Iraqi Freedom that was presented as freeing Iraqis from state oppression. Civil rights attorney Chase Madar (2012) noted how Manning enlisted in the U.S. Army believing she could make a difference. He described how in October 2009, when Manning was deployed to Iraq, she thought she was helping the people there build democracy. For a time, Snowden also believed in the doctrine of Iraq Freedom. In 2003 he enlisted in the U.S. army to fight in the Iraq war and began a training program to join the Special Forces. He said the reason for his participation was that he felt an “obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression”.

Both Manning and Snowden were ordinary people who showed extraordinary courage. In the fog of the terrifying normal, they came to recognize something was very wrong and began questioning the dominant perspective. Manning soon became aware of the systematic abuse of imprisoned Iraqi citizens with torture and when she brought her concern up the chain of command she was shut down by her superiors. Snowden also became disillusioned about the stated mission of the war and he was discharged after he broke his legs during training. Later, a strong sense of betrayal grew in him with his awareness of Obama’s broken campaign promises, especially the transgression of his stated “sunshine policy” by enacting his unprecedented and brutal prosecution of whistleblowers.

Empathic Inquiry

In the face of deception and systematic numbing, these truth-tellers maintained a sensitivity and a feeling of their intrinsic connection to others. This enabled an empathic inquiry for them to see through the hidden truth in this War of Terror. In the video known as Collateral Murder that depicted the incident in New Baghdad, Manning gained access to uncensored images of America’s war in the Middle East. In the unfolding images of decimated Reuters reporters shot from the Apache helicopter gun-sight, she saw human beings where she had been trained to see “enemy combatants”. She saw another person whose life was as precious as hers. In that moment, she freed them from perception enslaved by the subject position of U.S. Supremacy, which had made them into mere objects. She was able to bear witness to the truth articulated in her chat log, “we’re human…. and we’re killing ourselves…”

This recognition of those who had been dehumanized has cast light on the smoke and mirrors of Pentagon and government propaganda and cracked the shield of the banality of evil of our time. At the providence inquiry, Manning spoke for those who have become victims of this destructive American foreign policy:

“I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan were targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the ‘pressure cooker’ environment of what we call asymmetric warfare.”

By letting the public see these people who had been made into faceless images of “life unworthy of life” by the corporate media, she also spoke for the American people who were themselves victims of the War on Terror ideology. Her disclosure of government secrecy was deeply rooted in her empathy for ordinary people who had been relegated to spectators; trivialized, made ignorant and betrayed by their own governments. This was expressed when she described her primary wish: “I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public …” This sentiment was also shared by her successor Snowden, who claimed that his motive for disclosing documents pertaining to NSA spying was to inform the public so they could decide what is best for them.

Truth is grounded in dialogical reality and conscience is awakened through the path of empathy, which is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This is what drove those whistleblowers and also what guides WikiLeaks.

When The Guardian abandoned Snowden in Hong Kong and there were no other organizations or individuals willing to help, WikiLeaks stepped forward. This action was acknowledged later by Snowden when he described the organization as one that runs “toward the risks everyone else runs away from”.

Assange noted empathy as a reason he supported Snowden’s bid for asylum. He described how he personally sympathized with his situation, especially after watching what Manning had gone through. Harrison, who co-founded the Courage Foundation, an international organization that supports whistleblowers also pointed to empathy as one reason behind her courageous act. She said, “someone had done something so brave, and they should be supported … I felt an empathy, a natural human empathy, and wished to support that.”

After the shock waves of the Snowden revelations wore off, many normalized the violation of privacy with the attitude “I have nothing to hide” as if this Stasi-like system could somehow be justified. In spite of governments’ harsh reactions toward those who speak truth, many simply will say that this would never happen to them. Yet, history has shown that the failure to feel for others and stand up to blatant injustice makes us passive in the unfolding of the future and that this silence often leads to horrific ends. Martin Niemöller, the famous Protestant pastor who spoke against the rise of Hitler and spent years in concentration camps reminds us of this:

“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

The contagious courage that emerged from these waves of whistleblowers shows that someone had spoken out for us. To act with conscience is to abide by our innate ability to feel truth; to recognize what has become so dark inside that it makes us deny our inherent obligation to one another.

Each person’s courage transforms this feeling into love that can meet the banality of evil and dismantle its cold and merciless sword. The actions of individuals, no matter how small can change history. It is for this power of ordinary people to participate in and determine the course of history that these truth-tellers sacrificed their personal lives. We must all fight to claim it so that the light that shines from within can define who we truly are.


This piece was originally published with the title “Contagious Courage; The Other Side of Banality of Evil” on Truthout on January 6, 2015. In this version, a small update was made to incorporate more accurate details about Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong that came to light with the recent documentary release, “Snowden’s Store Flugt (Snowden’s Great Escape)”. I clarified WikiLeaks involvement in rescuing Snowden and the role that Ecuadorean Consul Fidel Narvaez played.



Writer, social critic and creator.

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nozomi hayase

nozomi hayase

Writer, social critic and creator.