Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The banality of evil

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "banality of evil" to describe Adolf Eichman, the architect of the Holocaust. I haven't read the book -- I find her writing turgid -- but I've always found the phrase fascinating. It makes the point that those who commit evil acts are not red of tooth and claw, but often -- indeed, extremely often -- are the grey men who blend into crowds. Indeed, as the recent arrest of Dennis Rader demonstrates, they may be pillars of their community:

The faithful gathered at Christ Lutheran Church early Sunday morning, bewildered and overpowered by a sense of betrayal. Just a week ago, Dennis Rader, president of the 400-member congregation, had been a welcome and familiar face in their midst. He had recently dropped off spaghetti sauce and a salad for a church dinner, the pastor said. On Friday, Rader, 59, was arrested and accused of being the long-sought BTK killer who tortured and killed 10 people in the Wichita area from 1974 to 1991.
Another equally banal piece of evil was Andrei Chikatilo, the Beast Rostov, in Russia, who was a complete non-entity, married, with children. Why am I wallowing in this kind of crime wave? Because I was thinking about Downfall, the new movie from Germany, portraying Hitler's last twelve days in the Bunker. I haven't yet seen the movie, but I've been aware that some have been very upset that it shows Hitler being courteous to people and kind to animals (in between rampaging and raging). Those complaining about the movie are afraid that this amounts to hagiography that will detract from just how evil Hitler really was. I happen to think the opposite. I think that, if the movie is well done (and, remember, I haven't seen it) it is an extremely useful reminder that, more often than not, evil people are not raving sadists, such as Vlad the Impaler. Many of them present as ordinary people, living bland, ordinary lives. If we constantly expect evil to make itself manifest, we are doomed to live surrounded by, and unprotected from, the most evil among us.