From the beginning of this brief scene, it's clear that this is a drama whose end is already written. “Pilate, wanting to satisfy the crowd...” Justice isn't the goal here. This is the political street theatre of empire, a ritual that cements Rome's authority under the guise of being benevolent.
Then, as now, it's possible for good leaders to be so caught up in the rhythm of the machine that they never think about the results of their actions. “My hands are tied.” “I'm just doing my job.” I used to think that Pilate's washing of his hands after sentencing Jesus might be a sign of his disgust with the Jews' insistence on releasing a guilty man and condemning the innocent. But in light of the unfeeling routine with which Pilate moves through this charade, the scene is more like any worker automatically washing off the unavoidable grime that is the result of his trade. “What is truth?” he had asked. Is this the query of a seeker, the cynicism of a political pragmatist, or the sneering dismissal of one who has surrendered hope to the grinding of the machine?
Hurting others and even brutalizing them can be handled in the most banal ways. New York's governor was caught on a wiretap arranging an assignation with a call girl and the tapes show no ardor, just the mundane details of moving packages of money and making sure his credit was good; as an afterthought he had to be reminded what the woman looked like. US leaders talk about the need to keep torture methods such as waterboarding legal with routine earnestness. (Maybe the logic applied to Eliot Spitzer, that one who treated others with an unflinching moral standard should be subject to it, ought to be applied to nations that regularly take other nations to task for “human rights violations”?)
Like Pilate, we are caught in systems that have their own seemingly relentless momentum. Consider the economy. As the rollercoaster accelerates downward, elites who have the experience and capital to take the long view focus on now and sell values down even while calling for confidence that things will get better. Most of us are just along for the ride, rolling with the punches of more costly food and gas, losing homes, disappearing jobs. Yet our consumption often depends upon women and children elsewhere working long hours for low pay in conditions we would never allow. Sometimes we're the pavement, and sometimes we are the steamroller.
Yet this is the world Jesus enters, the system he subjects himself to. His lack of resistance points out how likely we are to, like Pilate, try to please the crowd or ourselves rather than think about justice. By going through this brutal system he brings about good, not by uplifting the brutality and redeeming it by its good outcome, but by showing us that there is another way than “just doing our job.”