I just finished watching the new biopic Hannah Arendt, which I sadly must admit has provided me with the best taste of her work and philosophy (if we can even call it such) that I've received in all of my formal education. Professors of mine mentioned the "banality of evil" in various classrooms settings but it was never assigned as required reading. As a graduate student in sociology, I remember her being brought up once in class and it was related to her notion of power. Yet, from the small glimpse into her political theory and philosophy that I've gleaned from the movie, her work was inherently sociological and it is indeed sociological that it has been disregarded in sociology, though that is another discussion of its own.
The film covered the controversy that ensued after Arendt published her series of articles in the New Yorker about her understanding of the Eichmann trial in Israel, which caused her great strife. She was criticized, vilified, and even had her life threatened for blaming the victim and defending Eichmann, a Nazi criminal. All for pointing out something that seems readily apparent. As she later wrote, “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil” (Arendt 1978). Our inability to acknowledge this sociological truth has consequences for both the human and non-human world.
On April 15 of this year a great "evil" was committed at the Boston Marathon when two bombs exploded killing three people and injuring over two-hundred others. The two brothers responsible for this heinous crime were two unsuspecting young men. Recently, controversy has arisen over the so-called glorification of the surviving Tsarnaev brother by placing his image on the front cover of the Rolling Stone Magazine. Those upset with the image think that there were plenty of people that deserved to be on the cover instead of the murderous Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and this may well be true. But what is it really that bothers people about seeing the face of the Boston Marathon bomber on the front cover of a popular magazine? Is it the fact that someone that we all consider evil is being placed on the same pedestal of music's finest? Or could it be that we are unwilling to be face to face with the evil that we fear and despise? Do we lose something if we simply label Tsarnaev (or James Holmes, Adam Lanza) "evil"?
While I have no answer for the first questions, I think that the answer to last is an emphatic yes. It certainly prevents us from collectively probing into the causes and conditions that led these individuals to such morbid actions. Honestly, we may never know why James Holmes decided to shoot up a movie theatre, but collectively reflecting on his actions and their consequences could help us move forward. Who knows? Maybe we might be able to prevent something like it from happening again. Sadly we often stop short of this and leave it at "evil".
In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt (1963) wrote, "The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." It is a case of grand irony that over fifty years ago Arendt wrote this thinking about a totalitarian regime that treated a group of people with indignity by destroying their homes, breaking up their families, subjecting them to humiliating searches, not to mention death. While she was talking about the Nazi regime and a person carrying out orders as such, she could just as easily be talking about the state of Israel and the many arms that enforce her will over the Palestinian people.
Quick Links to more reading about Arendt: