The Evil of Banality

In a book published in 1963, Hannah Arendt immortalized an expression that since has become the signature line to describe a person who commits acts of prodigious evil simply in the process of following orders. The individual in question was Adolf Eichmann, whose trial resulted in her treatment titled, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann was banal, all right; in fact, as alluded to in T. S. Eliot's famous poem, "The Hollow Men," he resembled Mister Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's chilling Heart of Darkness -- "hollow at the core." Which did not prevent him from carrying out horrific acts befitting a moral cypher whose only defense was "do not judge me."

Such a sentiment, along with a reverse formulation of Arendt's famous line, lurk beneath the responses of those called to testify before Congress to justify their behaviors in the three scandals currently being investigated by outraged Republicans as well as a smattering of concerned and perhaps embarrassed Democrats. Variations of responses that range from "I don't recall," and "I have no memory of that detail," to a simple "I don't know" pepper the testimonies of thickly credentialed functionaries whose main goal, it seems, is to barricade themselves behind pillars of paperwork that shield them from efforts to ascertain professional responsibility. Call this the Eichmann-Kurtz defense, which was manifested to a ridiculous extreme by Lois Lerner at the IRS, who proclaimed innocence of any wrongdoing -- and then took the Fifth Amendment for protection from self-incrimination.

Certainly the individuals in question -- representing the IRS, the Justice Department, and whoever made the final decisions in the Benghazi affair -- are not guilty of anything like Eichmann's crimes, nor of Kurtz's fictional depredations. In short, we're obviously not talking about evil on that scale, although four murdered diplomats and their families attest to criminal negligence at the highest levels. It is rather an Eichmannesque refusal to take responsibility for the seriousness of one's acts, a refusal to acknowledge the claims that morality makes on the professional lives of those entrusted to preserve the honor of the American republic. From this perspective, many in the current administration being questioned are not banal in terms of being bereft of laws, regulations, precedents, and so forth to cover their actions; quite the contrary, they are all, so to speak, full of those things. It is the moral core that is lacking, that falls short of the levels of responsibility involved. One senses an ethical hollowness that reduces otherwise "respectable" public servants into bastions of banality capable of inflicting evil in the American democratic republic. Or rather, their moral development reaches only to the level of banal officiousness, but not to that deeper level where moral courage prevails.

Consider for instance the story of Catherine Engelbrecht, who told her story on Mike Huckabee's program and has now been widely reported. She is a conservative who applied to the IRS for tax-exempt status for an organization she wanted to create. Agencies of the United States government descended upon her like a bevy of jackals. She was investigated by the FBI numerous times, and audited by the IRS, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, on multiple occasions. By way of contrast, groups favorable to the current regime received no such heavy-handed treatment. And at no time, as nearly as can be determined, did anyone in a position of authority reveal any moral qualms about what they were doing. As to be expected from banal functionaries, they saw nothing wrong in their actions, any more than did Justice Department officials see anything wrong in seizing email records of AP reporters or classifying James Rosen of Fox news as a "co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor...committing the criminal offense...." One could cry in exasperation and proclaim, "surely, not here, not in the land of the free. It can't happen here!" It can and it does.
In the superb documentary series,
The World at War, Lawrence Olivier narrates an account of a German woman who witnessed a synagogue burning after Kristallnacht. She noted an observer saying, "Shame to our culture!" A Gestapo agent standing nearby immediately reported him to the government. The lesson was clear; you don't take a position against government policy and get away with it.

This is an extreme example, of course. But still frightening and instructive nonetheless. And these cases -- Benghazi, the IRS, and journalist intimidation -- cannot be dismissed as mere "distractions" or footnotes in the adventures of partisan politics. Together they are daggers aimed at the heart of the American democratic process, and perhaps, God help us, harbingers of worse things to come. All of which is more than just "chilling." It's evil. The evil of banality.

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science at Grove City College and a fellow with the Center for Vision & Values.

In a book published in 1963, Hannah Arendt immortalized an expression that since has become the signature line to describe a person who commits acts of prodigious evil simply in the process of following orders. The individual in question was Adolf Eichmann, whose trial resulted in her treatment titled, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann was banal, all right; in fact, as alluded to in T. S. Eliot's famous poem, "The Hollow Men," he resembled Mister Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's chilling Heart of Darkness -- "hollow at the core." Which did not prevent him from carrying out horrific acts befitting a moral cypher whose only defense was "do not judge me."

Such a sentiment, along with a reverse formulation of Arendt's famous line, lurk beneath the responses of those called to testify before Congress to justify their behaviors in the three scandals currently being investigated by outraged Republicans as well as a smattering of concerned and perhaps embarrassed Democrats. Variations of responses that range from "I don't recall," and "I have no memory of that detail," to a simple "I don't know" pepper the testimonies of thickly credentialed functionaries whose main goal, it seems, is to barricade themselves behind pillars of paperwork that shield them from efforts to ascertain professional responsibility. Call this the Eichmann-Kurtz defense, which was manifested to a ridiculous extreme by Lois Lerner at the IRS, who proclaimed innocence of any wrongdoing -- and then took the Fifth Amendment for protection from self-incrimination.

Certainly the individuals in question -- representing the IRS, the Justice Department, and whoever made the final decisions in the Benghazi affair -- are not guilty of anything like Eichmann's crimes, nor of Kurtz's fictional depredations. In short, we're obviously not talking about evil on that scale, although four murdered diplomats and their families attest to criminal negligence at the highest levels. It is rather an Eichmannesque refusal to take responsibility for the seriousness of one's acts, a refusal to acknowledge the claims that morality makes on the professional lives of those entrusted to preserve the honor of the American republic. From this perspective, many in the current administration being questioned are not banal in terms of being bereft of laws, regulations, precedents, and so forth to cover their actions; quite the contrary, they are all, so to speak, full of those things. It is the moral core that is lacking, that falls short of the levels of responsibility involved. One senses an ethical hollowness that reduces otherwise "respectable" public servants into bastions of banality capable of inflicting evil in the American democratic republic. Or rather, their moral development reaches only to the level of banal officiousness, but not to that deeper level where moral courage prevails.

Consider for instance the story of Catherine Engelbrecht, who told her story on Mike Huckabee's program and has now been widely reported. She is a conservative who applied to the IRS for tax-exempt status for an organization she wanted to create. Agencies of the United States government descended upon her like a bevy of jackals. She was investigated by the FBI numerous times, and audited by the IRS, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, on multiple occasions. By way of contrast, groups favorable to the current regime received no such heavy-handed treatment. And at no time, as nearly as can be determined, did anyone in a position of authority reveal any moral qualms about what they were doing. As to be expected from banal functionaries, they saw nothing wrong in their actions, any more than did Justice Department officials see anything wrong in seizing email records of AP reporters or classifying James Rosen of Fox news as a "co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor...committing the criminal offense...." One could cry in exasperation and proclaim, "surely, not here, not in the land of the free. It can't happen here!" It can and it does.
In the superb documentary series,
The World at War, Lawrence Olivier narrates an account of a German woman who witnessed a synagogue burning after Kristallnacht. She noted an observer saying, "Shame to our culture!" A Gestapo agent standing nearby immediately reported him to the government. The lesson was clear; you don't take a position against government policy and get away with it.

This is an extreme example, of course. But still frightening and instructive nonetheless. And these cases -- Benghazi, the IRS, and journalist intimidation -- cannot be dismissed as mere "distractions" or footnotes in the adventures of partisan politics. Together they are daggers aimed at the heart of the American democratic process, and perhaps, God help us, harbingers of worse things to come. All of which is more than just "chilling." It's evil. The evil of banality.

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science at Grove City College and a fellow with the Center for Vision & Values.