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Everyday Philosophy: Russian soldiers need to know the world is watching them

The so-called Nuremberg defence of “I was just following orders” won't protect them, nor should it

Image: The New European

In Plato’s Republic one speaker, Glaucon, describes a magical ring that when turned renders the wearer invisible. This is the Ring of Gyges. Glaucon suggests that good and evil people alike would take advantage of the protection it offered. They would enter other people’s property when they could, steal with impunity, and have sex with whomever they wanted. This is Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates to prove that morally just behaviour isn’t simply a matter of doing what will bring you rewards because others will approve of what you do. A truly just person would have to act morally even in those situations where they could easily get away with behaving immorally. Socrates – and presumably Plato, who uses Socrates as his mouthpiece in this dialogue – believed that moral behaviour brings its own rewards.

As we learn more about the murder, rape, torture and looting carried out by some Russian soldiers in Ukraine, as well as their attempts to cover up what they have done, it is difficult not to side with Glaucon. Once they think they can get away with it, many people are prepared to do awful things. This is being enacted in parts of Ukraine today. We’ve already seen photographs of civilians with their hands tied who have been shot at close range, their bodies left to rot in the street. We’ve read reports of women and children gang-raped, and we’ve seen videos of family homes desecrated in the search for whatever booty soldiers could lay their hands on.

These invading soldiers act as if no one can see them, apparently without conscience. Some, perhaps most, of their actions will for ever remain invisible. But Russians who used one post office in Belarus may have had a shock. CCTV camera footage of them sending heavy parcels home, some of them weighing hundreds of kilos, has been widely circulated, and many of the soldiers have been identified by name and even by telephone number. Their rings of invisibility failed them as they posted fridges, bicycles, children’s toys, jewellery, televisions, car tyres, bicycles, and hundreds of kilos of stolen clothes to their homes.

Other soldiers’ botched attempts at covering up their war crimes have left gruesome evidence – half-burned or hastily buried bodies, blood-stained rooms. This is all being carefully documented and archived. As ever, many of these war criminals will escape justice. But some won’t. This is one of the better consequences of digital surveillance – some of them will be caught.

Jeremy Bentham realised when he designed his Panopticon prison that making people behave better doesn’t require you to watch them all the time. He designed it so that prisoners couldn’t tell if they were being watched or not. The fear that any moment they might be being seen was, he believed, likely to “grind rogues honest”. Similarly, if Russian soldiers start realising that they might be being watched, fear might curb their worst actions.

In their frenzied search for hidden money, Russian soldiers plundering an apartment near Kyiv tore several pages of a translation of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. The journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk tweeted a photograph of what was left of the book, suggesting that these soldiers might not have realised what it was about. It is, of course, Arendt’s account of the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who had overseen the deportation of millions of people to concentration camps. Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe him. No embodiment of demonic evil, he was a rather ordinary man who lacked moral imagination.

As Samantha Rose Hill points out in her excellent short biography of Arendt, the phrase “the banality of evil” has often been misunderstood. Arendt emphasised that she wasn’t claiming that evil was commonplace, and she didn’t mean that there was an Eichmann in all of us that would be awakened if the conditions were right. Rather the phrase described Eichmann’s lack of an expansive imagination, his inability to think about what he was doing from a decentred moral perspective.

It’s possible that Russian soldiers have been told to torture, rape, and murder Ukrainians. But that doesn’t absolve them of moral responsibility. Far from it. Eichmann, as Arendt pointed out, was acting within the law of his time. His were nevertheless moral atrocities. Whether or not their commanding officers licensed their behaviour, Russian soldiers today need to know that the world is watching them, or at least might be. The so-called Nuremberg defence that “I was just following orders” won’t protect them. Nor should it.

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