The Banality of Evil

In September 2007, at the American Atheist International conference, Sam Harris recalled the American racial lynchings of the first half of the 20th century, when huge crowds in the Deep South-bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, ministers, newspaper editors, police, sometimes even Senators and Congressmen-turned out as if for a family picnic to watch the torture-death of some young man or woman, then the body hung on a tree or lamppost for public display. If you have doubts, click to this link for a chilling education.

It seems surreal, a fever-dream from Hieronymus Bosch: all the fine folk in their Sunday best, men and women and children, smiling, and arranged and arrayed as for a postcard photo under a lacerated, often cindered human body. Yet these genteel people, who as Harris reminded us might even bring home souvenirs of body parts-teeth, ears, fingers, internal organs-were otherwise decent citizens, law abiding, loving to neighbors and pets, benevolent to strangers, and almost invariably, passionately Christian. To them, it was as natural and as moral as breathing.

Surely this must crack something open in your mind, and that is a glimpse into the banality of evil.

Racism is one example. For another turn to Adolf Eichmann, prime architect of Hitler’s Holocaust. A Jewish writer, Hannah Arendt, interviewed him as he awaited trial in Israel, as described in her famous 1993 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Expecting a ravening malevolent monster, she found an anonymous, vaguely befuddled, vaguely likable apparatchik, a bureaucratic minion who seemed confused about all the brouhaha. Eleven million dead, well those are the breaks, he was just a cog in the process, doing his job. After all it was war. Excuse me, is there a problem?

It shows too in our own daily lives, in a casual acceptance of suffering or torture, such as the refusal to think of what really happens at factory farms and in meat packing plants, or a muddled disinterest in war crimes or genocidal atrocities in far lands, or the idea (reluctant, of course, for we are all good, decent, moral people) that sometimes torture-please, let’s call it “enhanced interrogation”-is needful for public security. Within our moral geometry such torment is legitimate while we keep our distance, acceptable because we stand away. We never see electrode-burned flesh, never hear the screams. We hardly ever even encounter the broken, hollow-eyed, walking-wounded souls who survive it. It is abstract. Our leaders sanction, and we shrug.

Yet all the minions and apparatchiks-the legislators who legalize it, the President who enforces it, the attorneys who defend it, the officers who only follow orders-are perpetrators. And we too. We fail to see because the banal cruelty has wormed its way in, insinuating itself by inches, and made a home.

Something else is quite on a par with this, partaking the same banality; that is how decent, loving Christians can be blasé about Biblical atrocities, even exalting in things like Old Testament child-rape or mass murder, even the “ripping open” of pregnant women, because the Bible says God wanted it. And blasé too about a theology that teaches that any who die in the “wrong” faith, even children, must burn, sealed within a red-hot oven, forever. The screams are far, far away, and our religious teachers tell us not to listen. So we don’t. And all is sweet and beautiful.

It is evil without malice, soft and subtle and insidious, which enters our soul like the breathing-in of dark fog, and becomes part of us.

But the stain of it is just as red.


The Banality of Evil — 4 Comments

  1. It just goes to show that nothing is as inherently evil as intentional ignorance or inaction.

    If you make a habit of looking the other way when atrocities occur, and refuse to stand in defense of the victims of those atrocities, who will stand up for you when you’re an eventual victim, and why should they?

  2. FallenKnight –

    I am continually amazed at the human predilection for cruelty. It seems that normally decent people find it easy to revert to cruelty. That is inexplicable to me.

    You are exactly right about looking the other way. We cannot. Each of us needs to face these situations head on; some day it could easily be us our our children on the receiving end.


  3. A friend, a good and decent man who I have known for thirty years, dismissed water boarding and torture in general because that was how it was done in Vietnam when he was there. He feels that war is hell and some things are simply necessary. I disagreed and we left it at that. While I agree that sometimes we must do unpleasant things, torture and killing is not one of them.

  4. Talk about banality — I was a torture victim in my own family home. The perpetrator? — my mother, who deliberately set me up to be raped by my brother. Why did she do this? Her brother had raped her. In her own words, she thought “it was normal”. As, indeed, it was.

    You don’t have to study war news to find examples of torture. They’re all around us, in our daily lives. Look for the battered spouse (wife OR husband), for the gay-bashers, for the murder-for-pleasure of homeless people.

    The processes that form torturers are the stuff of life itself. High population levels invariably compound the pressures brought upon individuals and the ‘helping’ professions cannot keep up. There’s only one Yale University, and if your child doesn’t get a slot to go there? Or you’re too weak to get to the head of the food-giveaway line?

    You are what you do with what you have. I survived torture of an everyday sort, but I don’t condone it. People who get too wrapped up in their own pain fail to see others’ pain. Look around you. Who could you be helping today?

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