Friday, December 5, 2014

The Banality of Evil

"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.


  1. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, who was a friend of Thomas Merton, sent the following comments:

    "A very searching reflection, Leroy. Thomas Merton labeled Eichmann’s mindless obedience to the Fuehrer as 'corpselike obedience' ('Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.' 287). He caricatured this in his 'Chants to be used in Processions around a site with Furnaces.'”

  2. And then there is this comment from my 92-year-old Thinking Friend John Bush:

    "And 'twas with of us that served in WWII; we were caught up in a spot in history and just doing our jobs!"

  3. What concerns me most are the evil things that I have said and done in my life, and the effect on others. I would guess that this is common to humanity in general – even the saints. Most of humanity are decent people trying to get by. (There are a few exceptional cultures which elevate evil as admirable quality. Also there were and are a few exceptional individuals wicked to the core.) Thankfully there is a path of contrition, forgiveness, and absolution for those who would dare to change their ways. May I be found among them. May friendships reign as the rule, and the four love commandments of Christ.

  4. Part 1

    People like karma. Well, at least when the karma lands on someone else! We want our world to make sense. Yet, sometimes it does not make sense. Things happen. The book of Job gets written.

    Our jails are overflowing with people afflicted with illiteracy, mental illness, emotional scars from child abuse, lives of poverty, and the list goes on. This we tend to shrug off. Harder to ignore is the growing crescendo of outrage over the increasing awareness of what we might call SSD, or Sudden Suspect Death syndrome. A caller tells police a person, probably a juvenile, is in a park with a gun, possibly a toy. Minutes later a security cam records a police car pulling up by a park shelter, an officer jumps out, and almost immediately shoots the suspect dead. The twelve-year-old died without ever seeming to notice the police had arrived. The gun was indeed a toy. Protests and even riots have been happening across America, all the while, grand juries see nothing wrong. Meanwhile, the bodies of unarmed black men just keep falling.

    I even read a recent article comparing urban police shootings with America's earlier passion for lynchings. Police were usually present at the lynchings. Lurid stories were told to justify the lynchings. Even women and children were lynched. No self-respecting white man was safe while a 90 pound demon was on the loose. The brave might want to read here:

    A few years ago President Obama held a famous beer summit with Harvard Professor Louis Gates and a local police officer who had confronted Gates in Gates' own home. The best I can make out of all this is that we desperately need another beer summit, to negotiate a new social compact between America and its police. There are, of course, cynics who are cheering on the apocalypse, but I hope there is enough good will on both sides to make negotiations possible. Some have suggested that small, underfunded police forces should be consolidated into large enough units that economies of scale might make true professionalism possible. Indeed, cities as well as police forces could be consolidated. Better handling of 911 calls is needed. In the example above, the caller actually had it right, but the qualifiers did not get through to the responding officers. In other cases, a scared caller has set officers off on a disastrous mission from the get-go. Protocols are needed outlining principles to follow before escalating to force. In many cases things happened so fast that the suspect had no time to comprehend and respond appropriately. Finally, once and for all, end the war on drugs! The war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure in all regards of public policy. For minority urban communities it is devastating. It is just one more reason for too many police forces to act like occupying armies instead of community servants.

    1. I would gladly argue the other side from several personal experiences past and present, Craig. But I do appreciate your articulate way of phrasing the need to reason together - even if it accomplishes nothing. I have attempted on occasion to do so, and found myself called names, and worried about my safety. The left is no kinder than the right, and no more willing to talk reasonably. Thankfully friendships can still be found among the good-hearted of any persuasion. Evil is typically promoted by a few with a chip on their shoulder. May they rot in their self-righteousness. May I learn to live in Ps 51, and to avoid them and their arguments.

  5. Part 2

    For a paper I wrote back in freshman college English, I proposed writing on police brutality. My teacher was skeptical that there was enough material to support a paper, but since our college had a partnership agreement with the Kansas City Library, she agree to let me check there before abandoning the theme. So the next weekend I went there, and found row after row of books on the subject. It was heavy reading, but I was able to do my paper. My conclusion, then, and remains so now, is that we are asking almost more than is humanly possible of a group of relatively poorly paid policemen. And what we are asking them to do is critically important. Yet, even at that, we must find a way to make it all work better, much better. It has been nearly 50 years since I wrote that paper. Some things have improved since then, but not nearly enough. Some things have actually become worse, such as the effects of our collective experiment in militarizing the police with surplus military equipment. However, I think we may be at something of a teachable moment for all of us, if only we will harken to the ancient wisdom, "Come now, let us reason together." Isaiah 1:18 (OK, in the NRSV, it says "argue" instead of "reason," but even that would help!)

  6. "I agree that training people to kill, torture, and demean others is truly evil."

    This is a comment made by a Thinking Friend in New Mexico.

    But to a certain extent, this has been done (is being done?) by the U.S. Is that OK if it is for "self defense" or "national security"?

  7. Check out this Dec. 2, 1948, letter to The New York Times signed by Arendt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook, and a number of other prominent American Jews: