The banality of evil

The banality of evil

Christian theology believes in the existence of evil. Demonic possessions both in horror movies and in the bible are its expressions. The phenomenon can be so dramatic that people feel tyrannized by it. The popularity of exorcists in churches is a sign of people’s search for healing in their personal and social lives.

But what if evil does not appear demonic or perverted? What if evil becomes banal and normal, commonplace and ordinary? What if it goes around clothed in the garments of obedience, duty, obligation, purpose, patriotism or “truth”?

Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” easily comes to mind. To be banal is to be commonplace, routine, everyday. Arendt was sent to Jerusalem by the New York Times as a reporter at the trial of the Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, a holocaust perpetrator, was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and was brought to Jerusalem for trial. In what later was published as a book (Eichmann in Jerusalem), Arendt observes that Eichmann, the person Hitler put in charge to systematically deport millions of Jews in trains to Auschwitz, was a terrifyingly normal man.

He was just doing things out of his duty. He did not hate the Jews, neither did he love them. He was not also very intelligent. He uses stock phrases and clichés which tells us that he could not think for himself, nor was critical about what he was doing. When he knew that Hitler and the German respectable majority endorsed mass murder as the “Final Solution”, he just went with the flow. He just obeyed the Führer. The psychologists in the trial did not find anything wrong with him. He was not a psychopath but terrifyingly normal and felt so.

In his testimony, he said: “I am not a monster I am made out to be. I am victim of a fallacy.” He did not say he was just a scapegoat. He wanted to do so as an excuse but the court did not believe him. He was hung in the gallows on May 31, 1962, still confidently thinking that he did right up to the end.

If he was not a monster, maybe he was a “clown”. But his worst clowneries have sent millions to the gas chambers. This is the tragedy of evil as banal. These people were just following orders, thinking of doing good for the country and humanity. And many others accept the terrible things they do as normal.

There are new versions of the banality of evil in our times. In the face of the ruling of the International Criminal Court, Senator Bato de la Rosa, the implementor of Duterte’s campaign against drugs, defended himself thus: “We did not do the War on Drugs for ourselves, or to make ourselves rich, but for the benefit of the nation and for the youth.” And his colleagues from the Senate closed ranks to protect him from the ICC. They were bound to do their “duty” to a colleague. One of the senators said: “We won’t surrender Bato to foreigners.”

His boss, the past President, said the same lines years ago: “I did it because I want to protect your children and their future. Hindi akin iyan. Kayong lahat ng taong Pilipino ang nakinabang diyan… Everything, I did it for my country. Hindi ako nakinabang diyan. Wala akong satisfaction diyan. Hindi ako nagkaroon ng pera ni sentimos diyan,” Duterte said (PNA). And millions in the crowd cheered! The crowd did the same for Hitler.

And the banal evil continues in our midst.

The members of the NTF-ELCAC—with substantial budget from the government funds—continues to “red tag”, malign, hunt, endanger the lives of lumads, human rights workers, grassroots organizers, student activists. Some were killed, others detained, some others just disappeared. The members of the said commission also profess to just do their duty, to clean the country of “communists”.

I am also thinking of the simple and ordinary policemen whom they asked to pursue, harass or kill. They are otherwise loving fathers to their children. We are overwhelmed by the heinous deeds and the pain it caused the poor people. Yet these policemen are not monsters in their personal lives. At the end of the day, they go home to their families or bring them out for meals on weekends. The killing was just part of their duty.

The Office of the President and the Vice President—two highest positions of the land—are requesting millions of confidential funds for their budget oblivious to the rising prices of commodities and the hunger of our people. Their lack of accountability and brazen corruption is revulsive and revolting. It is evil. Yet our legislators in both Congress and Senate approved it without question, without argument (except from one or two whom they also silenced) in the name of “parliamentary courtesy”. These “honorable” bureaucrats think they have to do this for the good of our country.

And while all these things are going on, the majority of our people, especially the economic elite who backs this regime, just continue with their own lives as if nothing happened. Everything is terrifyingly normal, dangerously banal.

“The trouble with Eichmann,” Arendt writes, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, and that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 276).


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