Friday, September 21, 2007
the banality of evil.
The other day, I read an article on a photo album that had recently been donated to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. The album belonged to the adjutant of the second (and last) commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and it shows the SS officers of the camp leadership on various recreational outings. Pictures of pre-liberation Auschwitz are very rare, and these were the first and only ones that showed the SS leadership in their "free time". The newspapers, both here and in Germany, invariably commented on the fact that the evil of the subject matter is enhanced by the fact that not a single prisoner or concentration camp installation is seen on those pictures. Instead, they show a bunch of jolly SS officers and women guards and auxiliaries, singing to accordion music, eating blueberries, and hiking together.
Looking at those people, you'd never guess that their daytime job was to actively exterminate a few thousand people every day for five years--gassing, shooting, starving, suffocating, or fatally injecting over a million men, women, and children for the crime of belonging to the wrong religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Their executioners look like normal people, no different from any accountant, businessman, or mill worker you've ever seen in pictures of the era.
They look like any of us.
Hannah Arendt coined the term "Banality of Evil" to describe the idea that most atrocities in history were not perpetrated by fanatics or sociopathic lunatics, but rather by "normal" people, regular folks who came to rationalize the normality of their actions. The scary thing about these pictures is that they could show any of us sitting in a lawn chair and eating blueberries while the chimneys of the extermination camp are smoking just a few miles away. Auschwitz was something that could have been perpetrated by anyone. If the Germans, the people of Schiller, Kant, and Goethe, could fall victim to a national hysteria that culminated in otherwise unremarkable and average people willingly shoving crying children into gas chambers, then anyone can.
I think that this is the most depressing and frightening thing about the nature of evil. The seed for it is in all of us, and all it takes to make it bloom is the right combination of circumstances. Give a person power over others, dehumanize the intended victims, offer increased social status for willingly following the orders to shoot, sanction their actions with societal approval, and even the most mild-mannered accountant will put on a uniform and kick the gold teeth from the mouths of his neighbors.
(And if you think Americans are immune to such things, just Google "lynching pictures", and sift through the hundreds of images of good God-fearing folk bringing their kids to a lynching and making a social event out of it.)
That's why I cannot tolerate the "bomb Mecca" crowd any more than I can stomach Holocaust deniers and bigots of any color and creed. A few weeks back, I read a thread on a gun discussion board about American Muslims, and someone stated that the next major terror attack by Muslim extremists may very well result in American Muslims being dragged out of their houses and shot by the curb. Someone else responded with, "Great--can't wait for that."
When I read stuff like that, I always think of the pictures of corpses piled high in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When you make peace with the idea of exterminating a whole population, then you are already on your way to claiming that uniform and standing guard over the Untermenschen.
Maybe it's human nature to claim allegiance to a tribe and then rationalize why the Others have to die. Maybe the duality of Man makes it inevitable that such things happen--light needs darkness to exist, and decency needs evil to define it. Without the Josef Mengeles of the world, we wouldn't have Maximilian Kolbes, Oskar Schindlers, or Edith Steins.
That's why I'll never tolerate my fellow countrymen going house to house and weeding out those who have the wrong religion, skin color, or sexual preference. That's why no act of terrorism will ever make me support putting American Muslims in concentration camps like the Nisei of World War II. It's not because I don't know that evil exists, but because I know that it's almost ludicrously easy to surrender to it once you feel that you have both a righteous cause, and the moral support of your society.
I look at the faces of those SS officers, laughing and having a good time at their hunting lodge only a few miles from the extermination camp, and I know one thing for sure: none of them were evil in their own minds. They were all, to the last man and woman, convinced that their cause was righteous, and that what they were doing every day was necessary and morally justified. None of them could have made it a week at their jobs if they hadn't thought their own actions to be normal. Like Robert Heinlein said: the enemy is never the enemy in his own eyes.
Evil is rampant in the world, but it's not tied to a nationality, religion, or skin color...and when you propose to fight it by wiping out a group that shares any of those identifiers, you are already well on the path of evil yourself. When you accept that premise, the most important groundwork is already laid--the tilling of your mind--and then putting on the uniform and herding the Others to the gas chamber at gunpoint is a comparatively easy step.