The Back Road: The banality of evil

The Island Now

German-born American political philosopher Hannah Arendt, coined the phrase “banality of evil” after seeing the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, which began on April 11, 1961.

Eichmann and his underlings were responsible for Jewish deportations to extermination camps, where they were gassed to death.

I had just turned ten that May and I only remember fleeting black-and-white images of the trial that took place in Jerusalem and aired on U.S. television.

What I remember most is the odd and eerie image of a balding, bespectacled man – Adolf Eichmann, seated inside a glass cage next to the witness stand. But, why was he in a cage?

As years passed, the image stuck and I came to know that the “banality of evil” refers to acts carried out by people – quite often bureaucrats, who may not be particularly evil, but are the result of their “just following orders.”

Thomas White gave voice to Arendt when he wrote that she “found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who was neither perverted nor sadistic, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy.”

According to White, “Arendt never downplayed Eichmann’s guilt, repeatedly described him as a war criminal, and concurred with his death sentence as handed down by the Israeli court. Though Eichmann’s motives were, for her, obscure and thought-defying, his genocidal acts were not.”

I have recently thought this not to be dissimilar, if not in scope then in style, to the June 2, 2020 U.S. military gassing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, in advance of President Trump’s walk to St. John’s Church for a photo op at the urging of his daughter Ivanka.

Even more evocative of the “just following orders” theme were the actions of federal agents ripping children, even babies, from their parents’ arms and throwing them into chain-link cages on the border, on orders from the White House, and at the encouragement of the president’s senior advisor Stephen Miller.

These events, carried out on U.S. soil, are dress rehearsals for a second go-round.

The president has control of armies of individuals, formal and informal – soldiers, police, bureaucrats and citizen bullyboy brownshirts, ready to do his bidding.

Regarding the gassing of Americans, General James Mattis said, “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

Vote wisely on November 3rd.

Regardless of the outcome, the threat to American democracy runs deeper than the evil acts perpetrated by a group of empowered misfits.

The threat is grounded in extreme divisions that have been incubating for decades, that reach beyond politics to a deeply-rooted conflict about race and culture. Make no mistake, electing the alternative alone with not resolve that.

Andrew Malekoff is a New York State licensed clinical social worker.

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