Wednesday, September 12, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ - I

Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” – Joseph Brodsky

Adolf Eichmann had the task of regulating “Jewish affairs and evacuations” in the Nazi regime. Until July 1944, his department played a key role in organizing the deportation of European Jews to the killing centers. Following the war, he dodged in and out  of the Middle East for several years before settling in Argentina in 1958. He was arrested by Israeli secret service agents near Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 11, 1960 and was put on trial in Jerusalem. He was convicted on fifteen charges, among which were crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and crimes of war.

After the trial, Eichmann was sentenced to death and  was hanged on May 31,1962. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt wrote a report on the trial which appeared in The New Yorker as a series of articles in 1963. From these articles she later published a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil which examines the wide gap in public perception between and the horror of the genocide and the insignificance (the banality) of the persons who were among those most responsible.

The question that plagued many was: how could in what was once regarded as the citadel of Western civilization, industrial scale murder of millions of people have be allowed to take place? How could it be that in a culture of law, order, and reason, there should have survived such murderous hatreds? How could  great masses of people willingly tolerate the mass extermination of their fellow citizens? What are the limitations of our modern society  and our assumed enlightenment? Arendt's book helps to answer some of these questions.

Arendt went to the trial thinking that she would find a Nazi monster but was shocked to find Eichmann “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. His case was all the more extraordinary because he had not been simply a subordinate. Rather, his part was very important in implementing the crimes. Arendt neither doubted Eichmann’s guilt, nor did she doubt that he deserved the death sentence. She pointed out the general pattern of how ordinary people become brutal killers. She shows how the not uncommon trait of being unable to think from the standpoint of others turns ordinary people into unfeeling, bureaucratic killers.  Arendt insisted, “obedience and support are the same.”

One of the aims of employing the word banality was to break with the standard and deceitful representations of evil as abnormal, profound and monstrous. The other side of banality refers to the activities that produced such evil. These activities were not murderous in themselves. They were comprised of office work such as organizing transport, deciding how many Jews should be deported and to where. Eichmann knew perfectly well the train destinations and understood that the Jews were to be killed, and how they were to be killed. But he had a curious idea of duty: if he did not see Jews being killed, his activities were not responsible.

By writing about ‘the banality of evil’, Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal.  She was not saying that the Nazi crimes were the similar to what had taken place earlier in history. In fact, she thought that the crime was unprecedented and that the court did not go far enough to stress this point. She feared that what had become "banal" was non-thinking itself - Eichmann was ready to do anything to advance in the Nazi bureaucratic grades. The situation had developed in such a way in the Third Reich that humans implemented policy, but no longer thought about the consequences of their actions.

The bureaucratization of evil can be compared to Adam Smith's method of production of goods: no person is responsible for producing the entire article. A person is instead responsible for repetitive production of part of the article resulting in more efficient production. Similarly, efficient production of evil depends on each person specializing in a part of the process. This diffusion of responsibility makes it easy for people to use their remarkable powers of rationalization to wash their hands off any responsibility for the resulting monstrosity.

Arendt was making a distinction between the doer and the deed:  what was ‘banal’ was not the consequences of the act but the regular , systematic way in which it was committed. At no step was there a protest. Over time, criminal activities had become routine and the moral universe had shrunk to such an extant that criminal orders were implemented without revulsion. It is often assumed that genocide must be caused by extraordinarily evil persons and unusual psychological processes that cannot be easily understood. But the psychological processes that lead up to that point and enable people to perpetrate such horrors are not so unusual.

Rather, the processes that enable genocide include many mundane, ordinary psychological phenomena that also apply in times of relative peace (for eg., the use of metaphors to normalize war). There was a failure to think and for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking may be genocidal. The banality did not concern all of the agents carrying out orders but specifically the evil that was committed by Eichmann. Banality refers to Eichmann as a character: his way of speaking, his use of clichés and stock phrases applicable to any situation and supported by the officialese, which he still admitted in 1961 was the only language he knew.

Of present-day Germans who saw figures like him as ingenious monsters, she said: “They possibly understood this as a way of creating a certain alibi for themselves. If you succumb to the power of a beast from the depths, you’re naturally much less guilty than if you succumb to a completely average man.” People become desensitized to violence they are exposed to; and participating in violence makes us more likely to engage in future violence.

It is also more comforting to think that a few monsters completely unlike us can be destroyed to make the world a better place than to contemplate a bottomless amoral mediocrity latent in millions. It indicates a fear of acknowledging that there doesn't exist an unbridgeable gap between the evil monster and our inner killer. Man, said Emerson, is nothing but God in ruins. As Auden said in his poem September 1, 1939. ‘The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout / Is not so crude as our wish...'.

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