Sunday, February 15, 2009

Death Before Disorder: Health Care and “The Reader”

In the movie, "The Reader," Hannah Schmitz is on trial for her Nazi-era war crimes as an SS officer and prison guard, including the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners kept locked in a burning church. Why, she's asked, didn't you let them out? Her answer, a terrifying one, is that she couldn't. The prisoners might escape. "There would be chaos," she said.

Schmitz's matter-of-fact choice - the death of others before a perceived risk of disorder - shocks the courtroom. Schmitz's act is terrifying, but not because it is a rare moral failure. It's because it is so common. Another Hannah, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, called this sort of evil banal. By that she meant that ordinary people often commit evil acts. They are not sociopaths. They are simply and unquestioningly following the rules of their culture or state.

Isn't this one way to describe the American health care system and the resistance to reform? Don't we keep many locked inside the burning building of a system that denies health care to millions? Don't we coldly guarantee their ill health and death, because reform threatens some sort of ideological disorder?

This brings me back to the awful truth of the banality of evil. What are we to do when confronted with many who resist health care reform because they lack the independence and insight to imagine the consequences of their resistance? It is very easy to demonize (easy because they deserve it) powerful and greedy leaders of the medical/insurance industrial complex. They know what they do.