In a long life spent mostly poring over words, few ideas have stuck a chord with me like political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous concept of Banality of Evil.
Countless articles and several books have been written on Hannah Arendt and her concept of Banality of Evil.
In 2012, an eponymous biographical movie Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, debuted to an enthusiastic reception from the critics (86% rating by Rotten Tomatoes)!
What is Banality of Evil?
Arendt came up with Banality of Evil in the early 1960s while reporting on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for my favorite magazine New Yorker.
In its essence, Banality of Evil means that great evils in the context of a state’s action are committed by normal, ordinary people.
For great evil to exist, the evil doers do not have to be (but can be) demonic, terrifying monsters with twisted minds like Narendra Modi, Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or Richard III.
More often than not, great evil actions like the Holocaust are done by people like Eichmann who strongly, but unthinkingly, believe in the legitimacy of their state’s policies or actions and are committed to it.
In Arendt’s words, great evil is committed by “terribly and terrifyingly normal” persons not given to much introspection or reflection on the enormity of their crimes.
To these ‘normal’ people, the evil actions are seen as virtuous, even if it violates generally accepted notions of morality, because their eyes are on what they consider to be a ‘higher good.’
In her writings, Arendt also discusses ideas like ‘joiners’ and ‘alienation’ to explain the evil behavior of normal men like Eichmann.
Banality of Evil created an intense furor in Europe and America among intellectuals, journalists and Jews when the concept was first revealed by Arendt.
Some prominent Jews condemned Arendt as a “self-hating Jew” while other critics rained calumny on her for what they considered to be insensitivity to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
But even critics who disagreed with Hannah Arendt on her characterization of Eichmann acknowledged that she had hit upon an important concept with Banality of Evil.
The controversy over Arendt’s concept of Banality of Evil as derived from her study of Eichmann has yet to die down in intellectual circles.
And new Eichmanns continue to be born everywhere.
Mini Eichmanns at NSA
As every day brings forth new disclosures of the U.S. National Security Agency’s vast illegal surveillance of the American people, I can’t help but think of Hannah Arendt and correlate her concept of Banality of Evil with the current actions of the NSA.
The U.S. is squandering tens of billions of dollars on fanciful schemes like monitoring online video game networks (no kidding!), collecting a billion cell phone locations a day, scooping up every e-mail and telephone call, collecting meta-data on Internet browsing and telephone calls, planting malware and viruses on PCs, and smearing and monitoring journalists and bloggers.
I have not the slightest doubt that every day top beneficiaries of the U.S. military industry complex pay unholy obeisance to Osama bin Laden. The maniacal actions of one Middle Eastern wretch on the morning of 9/11 continues to feed the ravenous appetites of several wretched defense contractors at whose behest the U.S. Congress works.
It’s clear to any thinking mind that the NSA is engaged in a pathetic and illegal exercise of state power under the fig-leaf cover of guarding the homeland from terrorist attacks. How did they miss the Boston Marathon attack then?
Tone-deaf senior NSA operatives and bureaucrats, Senators and Congressmen drone on endlessly that all these obviously illegal activities are actually legal and must be continued and expanded (even though the FISA court is unhappy over NSA’s illegal actions as per an article in the New Yorker, December 9, 2013).
And an army of NSA worker bees, mini Eichmanns in their evil actions, commit daily violations at their keyboards against tens of thousands of Americans through their vast illegal surveillance apparatus.
No matter that all these NSA illegal activities are being carried out only to enrich a few defense contractors like Booz Allen and provide jobs to the tens of thousands of thoughtless mini Eichmanns at NSA, who are utterly incapable of reflection or introspection of the enormity of their crimes.
For his great service in exposing the sordid deeds of the NSA, Edward Snowden deserves to be hailed as Man of the Decade instead of being hunted down by the present-day Eichmanns.
For his crimes against Jews and humanity, Eichmann was hunted down in Argentina, brought to justice in Israel and ultimately hanged.
For their daily crimes against Americans, will the mini Eichmanns of the NSA and their Eichmannesque bosses ever be brought to justice?
Sadly, the odds are very low!
Hannah, you were so prescient in your analysis of Banality of Evil!
You said “For his great service in exposing the sordid deeds of the NSA, Edward Snowden deserves to be hailed as Man of the Decade instead of being hunted down by the present-day Eichmanns”…..
Man of the Decade???? how??? He cooed on NSA and sought refuge in which country?? Russia!!!……So who is the alternative to NSA?? Vladimir Putin?? or Beijing and its Tienanmen Square exploits?? or India and its HInduism??
So, are Russians going to say to Snowden “Mr.Snowden. We know you are very dignified and idealistic. We respect your ‘courage’, privacy and right to be free because we too so wholeheartedly believe in ‘freedom’ and uprightness. Please keep whatever information you have about NSA with you and do whatever you want to do with it. It’s such an honour for us to put our lives on line for you against the might of America. Just enjoy our hospitality and some Russian pussy!!!”???…… What did Snowden think? or was he thinking at all???
1. First, you fail to see the irony of an American citizen Snowden seeking refuge in Russia.
Isn’t America supposed to be the bastion of freedom and openness and Russia the “Iron Curtain” behind which all freedom and human rights vanishes? 😉
2. Second, what would you have Snowden do?
Surrender his life and liberty just because he had the courage and fortitude to be a decent man?
Not after what happened to Manning!
3. Snowden was forced into Russia…because other nations were coerced into denying him asylum.
Most of us are tempted to think that leaders are wiser souls than their citizens and make better decisions than the average citizens who are not equipped with the information and wisdom to do so.
But that supposition is not always true – Leaders sometimes make disastrous choices/miscalculations vis-a-vis the public, major issues and other leaders.
The U.S. decision to force other countries to deny Snowden asylum in Cuba, Venezuela, India (??) etc and talk of intercepting his flight mid-air or while refueling forced the whistleblower into the arms of Russians.
This is what I call the “Law of Unanticipated Consequences.”
I’m sure not a minute passes when the NSA and their accomplices in crime do not deeply regret their impulsive, thoughtless actions that left Snowden with no choice but to embrace Russian ‘hospitality.’