A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.
Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.
These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.
I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.