Revisiting "The Banality of Evil"

In the midst of troubling times that include torture, police brutality, sexual abuse, and other acts of violence I happened to be reading about the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, best remembered for her phrase “the banality of evil.” 

Arendt was writing about Adolph Eichmann after having covered his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 when she wrote those words. “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which first appeared as a five-part series in The New Yorker, was considered a “masterpiece” by many and is still widely studied and debated. It also continues to spawn vivid controversy about the meaning of her words and thoughts, which some consider to be wrong theoretically while others call them outrageously anti-Semitic.

What people thought – not about her but about how to live their lives – is a loaded word in the context of Arendt’s work.  Thinking – being a sentient human being - was central to Arendt’s thesis that Eichmann was not only “monstrous” but “terrifyingly normal.” In an attempt to explain intellectually the horrific times in which she lived she posited that Eichmann acted devoid of critical thought as much as ideology or other sinister factors in his character.  He was, she suggested, not very different from multitudes of others whose behavior may not be as hideous but who are all too willing to act without compunction, whether to succeed or to survive.

Arendt wrote later that she was “struck by a manifest shallowness in [Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives.  The deeds were monstrous, but [Eichmann] … was quite ordinary, commonplace…”  Eichmann was, she had said, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.”

While Arendt may have been wrong about Eichmann in terms of his capacity for evil, her argument that ordinary people can be brutal seems to stands up.  As Yehuda Kurtzer pointed out in a November Times of Israel blog, most Germans went along with events that led to the Holocaust.  Even Jews assisted the SS to buy time in their own lives. Later, decent men bombed North Vietnam because they were unquestionably following orders from what Arendt called “desk murderers.” 

In Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, Kathleen B. Jones writes that what troubled Arendt most “was how many others were like [Eichmann] – terrifyingly normal, banal perpetrators of evil. What had happened, Hannah wondered, to make so many people thoughtless?”

After reading Eichmann in Jerusalem Jones wrote, “If I’d been born at another time, in another place, I could have been an Eichmann,” not because of any similarities in their lives or characters, but because of “the uniquely ordinary tale Hannah wove out of the facts of Eichmann’s life…I began to see I could no longer be certain I’d not only know the right thing to do but would do it.”  She continues: “I began to think the Eichmanns among us exist because the world has changed and there are no longer any simple formulae distinguishing right from wrong to turn to when we’re confronted with something unexpected. We have to decide all on our own what we should do and what we might have to risk doing it.  Thinking demands a burdensome kind of vigilant, imaginative observation of the world. Maybe that’s why many people prefer to avoid it.”

In a society in which police can shoot unarmed children and choke a man to death for selling cigarettes and not be indicted maybe we need to think about what Hannah Arendt was trying to tell the world.  When one out of five female college students is sexually assaulted on campus, when military women can’t report sexual abuse for fear of retaliation, and when famous men are alleged to have drugged and raped numerous women whose stories are doubted perhaps we need to think about how easily cruelty can enter our lives.  When politicians with an extraordinary lack of insight, compassion and intelligence can condone torture and legislate against ordinary people and when the ultra-wealthy spend untold amounts of money to buy those politicians, maybe it’s time to think about how quickly so many of us acquiesce and collude. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if this is a time to think again about “the banality of evil”?

In 2013, writing about “The Banality of Systemic Evil” on The New York Times Opinionator blog, Peter Ludlow made the observation that Hannah Arendt was making “a statement about what happens when people play their ‘proper’ roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing – or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”

It’s an observation that seems eerily prescient, and one that makes me suspect Hannah Arendt got a bad rap when what she was trying to do was simply make people think about some of the most urgent issues of the times in which we live.