"Banality” is not a word that we often hear. The dictionary I consulted defines it as “the condition or quality of being banal, or devoid of freshness or originality.” “Triteness,” “staleness,” and “unimaginativeness” are synonyms for banality.
Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish woman, created quite a stir in 1963 when her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” was published.
|Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)|
The 2012 movie “Hannah Arendt” depicts well the life and work of this fascinating intellectual, who died in New York City on December 4, 1975.
Adolf Eichmann, a high ranking Nazi leader and the primary instigator of the Jewish Holocaust, was captured in Argentina and brought to trial in May 1960. He faced 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.
Found guilty on many of the charges against him, Eichmann was sentenced to death and was hanged on May 31, 1962.
In her study of that trial, Arendt concluded that Eichmann was the embodiment of the “banality of evil,” asserting that he appeared to be ordinary and sane, yet displayed neither guilt nor hatred.
In a similar vein, Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor, said this about Eichmann: “We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”
In wartime, most killing, even by those we consider enemies, is done by people who are just doing their duty rather than by people who are especially vile or evil. That is true even for the pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor on the “day of infamy” that we remember on Sunday.
There are some Americans who even to this day are prejudiced toward Japanese people because of Pearl Harbor.
But if even the deeds of a man like Eichmann can be described as an expression of the banality of evil, as I think they probably can, certainly that can be said about most of the “rank and file” members of any army or air force.
Those who plan war and order others to fight may well be evil, but individual soldiers as a rule are no more evil than anyone else.
The same can be said about other tragic situations. For example, on Nov. 24 the grand jury in St. Louis County decided not to indict policeman Darren Wilson for killing Ferguson teen-ager Michael Brown.
As you know, that touched off senseless violence and protests not only in Ferguson but across the country and even in London.
A young man was killed, and his family and many other people think it was a needless and unjust act of murder.
We certainly don’t know whether the use of lethal force against an unarmed teen-ager was justified, but surely there was some other means for Wilson to get out of harm’s way.
But also quite certainly, Wilson was/is not an evil man. Rather, this is perhaps another example of the banality of evil.
In an interview on Nov. 25, Wilson said, “I just did my job. I did what I was paid to do and that was my job. I followed my training, the training took over, the training led me to what happened.”
So, as enacted by most individuals, including soldiers and policemen, perhaps most evil is banal. The problem is with evil systems that train, and order, people to kill, in war or at other times.