Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Banality of Evil

“The plan was to kill people." That is what Jeremy Morlock told an army judge after he participated in a "kill team" of soldiers in Afghanistan who brutally targeted civilians and then staged the bodies to look like dead insurgents. The soldiers took humiliating photos of the murdered civilians, and some even kept body parts as mementos. Morlock has been sentenced to 24 years in prison.

The above paragraph (as mild as it is) describes evil. It also describes abject stupidity, but let’s stay serious with “evil.” Admittedly, the word has been overused to the point of exhaustion. What do I mean when I refer to an action as evil? By the word “evil,” I refer to human behavior that is intentionally harmful to others.

But even with neat definitions and parameters, it is difficult to reconcile the image of a clean-shaven, all-American Morlock with the Morlock who sat so calmly in a courtroom and described the vicious murder of innocent people for sport. And how can you explain the actions of the other soldiers in the kill team, or those who actively covered up for them?

Grappling with the issue of evil is frustrating for me because oftentimes “good” or “normal” people commit the worst kinds of evil. Two writers have been valuable: Hannah Arendt and Henry David Thoreau.

Hannah Arendt
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (1963) the political theorist Hannah Arendt opened a unique window through which to gaze upon evil. Jewish by birth, Arendt escaped Nazi Europe in 1941 and later became a naturalized American. In 1961, on behalf of the New Yorker magazine, Arendt reported on the Jerusalem trial of Adolph Eichmann, who had been instrumental in administering the Nazi death camps.

She opened the trial's transcript in order to examine a sadistic monster, but she closed it without finding one. Like his fellow Nazi Heinrich Himmler, who went from being a chicken farmer to heading the notoriously brutal SS, Eichmann seemed to be an ordinary man simply carrying out orders. Arendt coined a term - the "banality of evil” - partly as a way to describe Eichmann's demeanor during the trial, in which he denied all responsibility for the holocaust on the grounds that he was just following orders; he was obeying the law.

Eichmann showed no guilt, malice, or insanity. The most remarkable emotion he displayed was a tendency to brag. Arendt called this bragging, “the vice that was Eichmann's undoing” because it led him to speak of atrocities that he had not been ordered to commit. To Arendt, it seemed Eichmann would rather die as a war criminal than live as a nobody.

Arendt continued to elaborate on how seemingly ordinary people can commit terrible acts simply because those acts were performed in a systematic manner and within a sanctioned context - a context that discouraged accountability by rewarding obedience. A reviewer of Arendt's book observed that the Nazis had "normalized the unthinkable."

Arendt's insights also applied to the more mundane atrocities. For example, the seizure of Jewish property ceased to be theft if it was done through proper paperwork, stamped, and filled out in triplicate by a government clerk. Those who processed the forms or inventoried the goods were simply doing paperwork and inventory; they were "honest" people just doing their jobs. (How many times have you heard that line?)

The same was true (then and now) of prison guards, special police forces, and an obedient judiciary. They obeyed laws or orders without questioning. The law assumed the role that conscience played in other people.

People obey for many reasons. Some see it as a path to success. Others fear the consequences of disobedience. Many, like those who do the paperwork to facilitate theft or murder, view their jobs as routine and boring - as far from evil as imaginable. They simply want to collect a paycheck or acquire a pension, and they give no thought to the content or consequences of their actions.

Arendt's complex explanation of “the banality of evil” offers us insight into Morlock and his kill team in Afghanistan. They were in an environment that systematically dehumanized Afghans. The military culture also dehumanized the individual's moral conscience and erased personal responsibility. (Ever seen “A Few Good Men”?) Despite the parallels, however, Morlock does not fit neatly into Arendt's paradigm. For one thing, he cannot fall back on “obeying orders” as an exculpatory argument. Of course he tried this argument, suggesting that a superior officer in his unit had suggested the kill team, but no one receive official orders. Their repeated cover-ups reveal that they knew their actions were wrong by some standard.

And now to one of my favorite authors:

Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau offers further insight. In his work, On Civil Disobedience, Thoreau objected to majority rule because the views of the majority do not always coincide with what is morally correct. Every human being has a fundamental obligation to discover for himself what is just and then to act according to his conscience, which is inviolable, even if it contradicts the majority or the law. It is precisely moral conscience that makes us fully human.

It is within the military that Thoreau saw the greatest relinquishment of moral conscience. Thoreau contemplated soldiers who would march off to die and to kill strangers in a conflict they know is unjust. He asked whether those soldiers retained or relinquished their humanity when they replaced their own moral judgment with the dictates of others. Thoreau concluded that once a man abandons his moral judgment, he becomes a machine; his body becomes a mere tool to be used by those in power.

Thoreau wrote,
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others - as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”

Many consider service to their country to be an automatic virtue, but it is a dehumanizing vice whenever it involves the abandonment of conscience. Soldiers like Jeremy Morlock point guns at strangers who have done them no harm. When you systematically strip away a man's conscience and then give him a gun with little accountability, the worst within his humanity is likely to surface. Or perhaps Thoreau is correct - his humanity itself may disappear.

Arendt stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” If so, then the first step toward evil for most people is agreeing to shut down the mind. And that is precisely why, like Jefferson, “I have sworn, upon the Altar of God, eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”


Sarah said...

The people who are able to commit acts of atrocity with no remorse are narcissistic. They have walled off a part of their hearts because they were damaged as children.

The lack of empathy is the number one hallmark of narcissism. A person cannot empathize with someone when he has been forced to become a narcissist to survive.

Charles North said...

Yes. Lack of empathy may also be the first sign of the capacity to commit evil!