Monday, October 09, 2006

Banality of Evil Today



In my conversation with Dr. Rejali last week on the ethics of torture, the hopeful moment came toward the end of the interview when I asked about what he wishes his life's work on torture will do. He explained that he would like us to understand torture not as a diabolical practice, an unimaginable evil, but a practice in which normal human beings engage and for reasons that are perhaps quite mundane.

I'm not sure if Dr. Rejali thinks of it in these terms, but his response made me think of Hannah Arendt's notion of the "banality of evil" that she develops in her report on the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her observation was that Eichmann sent thousands of people to their deaths from the Nazi concentration camps, but he was not filled with hatred or diabolical intelligence. He was simply incapable of engaging in self-reflection and having any kind of other-regarding thinking. He was perfectly ordinary.

Arendt's 100th Birthday is October 14 and this article by Edward Rothstein attempts to highlight her current relevance to our political world. It would seem to me appropriate to take her idea of the banality of evil and apply it to Lynndie England, the woman involved in the Abu Ghraib incident. Or perhaps to her defenders--her mother is reported to have said that England was "... just doing stupid kid things, pranks." When inhuman and degrading practices are thought of as child's play, then perhaps Arendt is more relevant than ever.

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