September 10, 2011

The Banality of Evil

I have a book that’s in perfect condition, which is to say it’s tattered and dog eared with many notes in the margins and underlined passages.  Its title is Eichmann in Jerusalem and aside from the New Testament, it has influenced me more than any other book.

It covers, however, the grim topic of the holocaust and is therefore not an easy read.  The author, Hannah Arendt, was a brilliant thinker who tried to answer in its 300, or so, pages the question: How did a relatively well educated and informed German public allow six million of its neighbors to be murdered?  I won’t try to summarize her conclusions, but they are at once insightful and frightening.

The book, of course, is about Adolf Eichmann, who was the man in charge of transporting Jews to their deaths during World War II.  After his kidnapping by Israeli commandos, Eichmann was taken from his hiding place in Argentina and put on trial in Jerusalem.  The hearing was meant to showcase to the world the sufferings of the Jews and the demonic nature of the people who’d caused it.  In the end, however, Eichmann was seen as a pathetic figure, who was only trying to do his job.  In short, he performed a heinous work without ever considering its underlying immorality.  This led Arendt to coin the phrase the banality of evil, as if evil could be so commonplace that it’s unremarkable.  She writes: 

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.  From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied—as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels—that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

One of the implications of Arendt’s conclusions is that when people are made to think they’re alone in their beliefs, they will adopt what appears to be the prevailing worldview.  People will, in the sad but accurate parlance of today’s youth, go with the flow.  But this can also work in the reverse.  In a few countries—Denmark, for instance—Nazis who were sent to fulfill the terms of the Final Solution changed their views in the face of majority opposition.  In other words, they not only defied orders, but recognized and admitted to the depravity of their goal. 

It’s essential, therefore, that we refuse to go with the flow and hold dear to personal philosophies that are consistent with moral axioms, but let’s not take the Bible in its entirety as a safe standard.  Quite the contrary, the Bible is unreliable as a definition of moral behavior, because it contains both Mosaic and Christian values that are inconsistent in their descriptions of what is Godly.  In some cases the Bible tells us that Godliness incorporates vengeance and anger.  In other passages it requires unconditional forgiveness.  My suggestion, therefore, is to hold Christ’s great commandments as inviolate—no matter what the Bible might say otherwise—and above all else love our neigbors. 

How Christians can do so and still fight against universal healthcare is beyond any logic that I can understand.  Similarly, I don’t see how we can love our neighbors and not support gay men and women in their efforts to express fidelity in marriage.  In this way, by refusing to hold Christ’s great commandments as inviolate, we are as shifting as the tide.  After all, there is nothing more frightening than a human being with evil intent, unless it’s the mass of humanity with no intent at all. 

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