The ancient Romans knew that. Their historians describe with terse fury the madness of emperor Tiberius, hiding from the public gaze at his villa on Capri among his young sex slaves, and Nero, setting fire to Rome to clear land for a new palace.
In the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, witnessing the trial of SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, coined that phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the strange emptiness and unsatisfying lumpenness of history’s criminals. Al-Assad’s Instagram world is supremely banal. Rather than a Nero fiddling while Rome burns or a Hitler dreaming of architectural follies in his last days in the bunker, the Syrian president in these pictures just wants to come across as a great guy with a lovely wife. However, the space between these images and the stench of war is so manifest that it reveals a true dictator’s loss of touch with reality.
The smiling fantasy of Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram is blandly psychotic. It reveals a terrible gulf between reality and the ruler’s fictional self-image. Banality may not be in itself a proof of evil. However, in the psychology these pictures reveal, what lies are not possible? The mind that can believe in these pictures might easily order a war crime then go home to kiss his beloved wife.