The Banality of Evil, Torture, and Mindlessness

Some thoughts on the banality of evil and American torture prompted by this post by Andrew Sullivan.

The phrase "the banality of evil" comes from Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book about her covering of the Adolf Eichmann trial.

Eichmann is often called “The Architect of the Holocaust” because he was the SS Officer charged with handling the logistics of the mass deportation of the Jewish population to the ghettos and, eventually, to the extermination camps. Eichmann was, in essence, the Bureaucrat of the Holocaust. The Organizer and Paper-Pusher of Death.

After the war Eichmann escaped to Argentina and lived under a false identity. He was eventually captured by Israeli operatives on May 11, 1960. Eichmann was secretly taken to Israel to eventually stand trial for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people.

Unable to cover the Nuremberg Trials, Hannah Arendt was keen the cover the Eichmann trial which took place from April 11 to August 14, 1961. At the end of the very public trial Eichmann was found guilty on all counts and was sentenced to death. Eichmann was executed on May 31, 1962.

Arendt, being a Jew, wanted to cover the Eichmann trial to have her own personal confrontation with Evil. She wanted to stare the Devil in the eye. She came looking for the Monster.

But what she found was something quite different. Eichmann was bland, nice and, oddly, intellectually shallow. By the end of the trial Arendt concluded that Eichmann was more of a fool than a monster. Arendt wrote: “Everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

The aspect of Eichmann's mind that struck Arendt was its superficially. Here are some of the ways Arendt describes Eichmann in her book:

“utterly reluctant to read”

“his almost total inability to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”

An Eichmann quote: “Officialese is my only language.”

“ruined by modesty”

“the hollowness of respectability”

“genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”

“this horrible gift for consoling himself with clichés”

“an inability to think”

“He did his duty…obeyed orders…a job”

Arendt's conclusion by the end of the trial was that evil isn't deep. Rather, evil is shallow. Specifically, evil is a kind of mindlessness. A mindlessness that gets trapped inside a paper-pushing bureaucracy and which blandly follows orders. In short, Eichmann never took the trouble to think.

This analysis of evil's mindlessness is what led Arendt to conclude that evil is banal. Evil isn't demonic or spooky or occult. Evil is workaday. Evil is paper, files, chains of command, bureaucracy, duty, and rule-following. Evil is a mindless worker bee. Evil is a bureaucracy that separates moral reflection from behavior. Evil is thus ordinary and common. A pervasive moral mindlessness and shallowness. Evil is a failure to think, to reflect, to object, to question, to rebel. Evil is a being a cog, a foot soldier, a patriot and a citizen.

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14 thoughts on “The Banality of Evil, Torture, and Mindlessness”

  1. Richard,

    I understand Arendt (in fact, met her when I was at the University of Michigan doing graduate work) and her description of "evil" as banal. She had a wonderful mind and has written some provocative books. But, she expected a monster and was surprised. Why would she be surprised? Why would anyone be surprised that evil is not a monster--or rather that it is, as Nietzsche put it "all-too-human"? A reading of a daily newspaper ought to have reminded her (and us) that monsters are very good at disguise: "He was such a quiet and helpful neighbor who didn't bother anyone? I can't imagine why he killed and ate those people." It is not evil that is banal but rather our imagination--and our unwillingness to see our own complicity in participating in and rationalizing evil deeds. Give me a crabby misanthrop any day. Less likely to sin against the Holy Ghost.

    By the way, Arendt (a Jew) did her dissertation under and had an affair with Martin Heidegger who later blessed the Nazis in 1934 as Rector of the University of Freiberg.


  2. It's interesting to compare this evidence of the banality of evil with the way Hannah Schmitz is portrayed in the recent film The Reader. Like Arendt found Eichmann to be, Schmitz is characterized by her inability or unwillingness to reflect morally. The film may even justify her decision to become an SS guard as an inevitable one for an illiterate, impoverished woman. The film reveals that Schmitz has developed habits induced by guilt (the stereotypical obsession with bathing). So I wonder if her particular ways of shutting down alternatives or preempting insults are partly the result of guilt and PTSD. If so, I wonder if Eichmann was similarly altered by his own combination of stress and guilt. I guess the question is whether these participants were prone to becoming agents of evil because of their inability to reflect morally or whether they were reduced to one-dimensionality by extreme stress and guilt.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with George, but I also believe that evil is narrow focus and vision, which can be about passion about/for "god". It leads to the same mindlessness, when one engages "faith" but without mind, just a "traditional" acceptable way of understanding things...and just as destructive and blind...

    So, whether a beauracratic government, or passionately focused "tradition", both hinder mindfulness, reason, and civilness, in regards to the betterment of everyone...

    There must be reasonable passion, then we can have a real discussion about what is "right" and "good"...enlarging our public square, and helping legislate what would benefit...and not limit all of us...

  4. I saw the Reader and was struck at how she passively submitted to being "the scapegoat" of the others, because of her shame. She maintained "moral order", but at "what costs"?

    So, just as there is discussion at Cambridge, or Oxford about social it based on order or rights?

    I think rights...order cannot allow creativity, contingency, etc. Order is structured around cause and effect thinking, and there are too many variables to pre-determine outcomes...

  5. this reminds me of how C.S.Lewis treats 'evil' in "Perelandra". it is indeed shallow and mindless, and all the horrifying for it. he presents it in a very chilling manner through the character of Weston, an intellectual and megalomaniac.

  6. If evil finds fertile ground in a kind of unreflective mindlessness, an “almost total inability to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view” as Arendt says, is there a connection to be explored between it and the dis-inclination towards meta-cognition you mused about recently here:

  7. "an inability to look at something from someone else's view"...

    Some people don't want to look at things in any way but theirs, and feel threatened if there is anyone who disagrees with them. These are not people that one cannot really have a relationship to, unless you agree with everything that they think, do and say.

    Disagreement is healthy and doesn't have to be about "right and wrong" stances...but differenc of opinion, values, and focus..

    I find that those who have such narrow views, are not ones that I want to be around too long, nor do they want to be around me. We really don't have much to say to one another, as where our passions lie are so different. And even when the passion is in the same place, we may disagree about some finer point, and that matters to these people.

    So, is one to "cowtail" to every whim of another, for the sake of "peace"? possibly, but I don't believe that irritaing someone else, by one's very presence is valuable either. One just can't be oneself...and some christians think this is what one should do to be 'loving',,...learn to defer every thing one says, does and thinks to what someone else thinks, says, and does..I really thought (and I have said before), learning humility was doing such, but I found that all it did was affirm the other in their opinionatedness. That doesn't help anyone, and I don't think it is well worth my time...

    I guess it depends on what one is to learn. One should learn to assert oneself as much as defer and learning sometimes when and how to do so...

    It is sad that one cannot have a relationship with such people. as they are bent on "teaching others" and don't want you to have anything to "teach", as they are the "mature and the "know it alls".....and if one doesn't learn what they have to say and parrot it back to them, then one is in for an "attack"...

  8. Richard and the group:
    There is a problem for me, mindlessly, accepting Arendt’s thesis completely, although I do accept her bona-fides.
    … ‘Evil is thus ordinary and common. A pervasive moral mindlessness and shallowness. Evil is a failure to think, to reflect, to object, to question, to rebel. Evil is a being a cog, a foot soldier, a patriot and a citizen’.

    In every social movement/activity there will be leaders and laggards. Thus while there in no excusing the foot-soldier there must be a higher moral responsibility on the leaders and how they are allowed to lead by their immediate coterie of beneficiaries. The difficulty I experience here was touched upon in an earlier post (meta-cognition, while out cycling) and it is this; ‘thinking’ as a discipline is not taught to most of the population. Further, there is a world of difference between dissent and disloyalty and unfortunately the average foot soldier is almost never informed of this, in fact in many organisations/institutions the opposite position is reinforced often with disastrous consequences.

  9. Whatever the cause, one thing is clear. Evil is not absolute. It is not exclusive. And more importantly, evil is prevalent in every one of us! The battleground for evil is inside. From the temptation of a chocolate bar to stealing to fill ones stomach... And there are no easy answers.

  10. So, battling evil is about the outside (others) and inside (ourselves)...

    That sounds like something that will take up the rest of my life...and really every moment of every waking hour...

  11. Could it be argued that mindless conformity is taught, expected, rewarded, and in some institutions, forced to varying degrees?

    These institutions range from primary school, the corporate world, the military, and YES even the church.

    Gary Y

  12. Sorry - I forgot to add that many times, "leadership" appears to be selected from this pool, "rewarding" those who demonstrated mindless conformity (I mean compliancy interpreted as loyalty and dedication - the ass kissers).
    Forgive the oversimplification but you get the idea.

    Gary Y

  13. How might we fit Augustine's argument that evil is the absence of good into this discussion? This view has predominated in the west for over a thousand years, and of course stands in contradistinction to the Manichean notion that there is a battle between good and evil as two separate powers. Can we equate Arendt's banality with Augustine's absence of good?

  14. Steve,
    Eichmann was just doing his job. Some would think this was good, as it is the status quo. It was similarly so in The Reader, as she accepted the guilt of others, without any outcry. She submitted to injustice.

    I find that the Church loves for people to submit to injutice as it is known as "being like Christ". But, lately, all of the thologizing around the life of Jesus just makes me sick. I can't sing the songs, or listen to the radio. Suffering is not something that one brings upon another and one enjoys it. And yes, sometimes, not doing "the good" can bring on suffering that is just as painful.

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