Thursday, 28 July 2011

Who're you calling crazy?

Adolf Eichmann in all probability never directly did any harm to anyone in his life. An inoffensive middle-ranking bureaucrat, he took on a challenging task in logistics, arranging the transport of up to 12 million people over long distances in wartime. His testimony at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 suggests that it was a challenge whose scale he fully appreciated and in which his achievements gave him some pride.

None of this, in itself, was evil. The evil lay in the purpose of the work – the attempted elimination of the entire Jewish population of Europe, ultimately half achieved by Eichmann’s employers, the Nazi SS.

Eichmann was executed for his part in that crime. Hannah Arendt, who isn’t exactly obscure but deserves to be far better known if only for the acuteness of her insight, produced an astonishing chronicle of his trial. She ends her book with the words she wished his judges might have addressed to Eichmann: ‘... just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. That is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.’

Hannah Arendt: extraordinarily acute insight
I don’t think any argument could ever persuade me out of my inveterate opposition to the death penalty, but those words come as close as any might.

Nowhere in Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, does she claim that Eichmann was a madman or a monster. On the contrary, she portrays him throughout as an ordinary little man, doing what he perceives to be his duty under difficult circumstances.

Eichmann was by no means alone in that: many millions did the same, often in pursuit of ends that few of us would regard as war crimes. During the Second World War, tens of thousands of ordinary young men, many of whom went on to become model husbands and fathers, teachers and businessmen, or perhaps adulterers and cheats and opportunists – in short men of every type and attitude – flew planes over German cities and dropped high explosive and, worse still, incendiary bombs on them. None or next to none of them wanted to cause children to burn screaming to their deaths, but they did it, and they did it with great courage (among British aircrew alone, more than two out of five were killed in the war) and they did it because they felt it was their duty.

Some would argue that what they did was a war crime, and I can understand the argument. All I can say is that I’m not persuaded by it; that my father, though to his lasting relief he was never involved in the bombing of cities, certainly flew bombers and on more than one occasion bombed men; and that had I been alive at the time, I have little doubt that like my father and my father’s father, I would have served in that war in some capacity or another. If such men were war criminals, then I can only accept that I would have been their accomplice, and only a historical accident, the timing of my birth, allows me to escape that complicity.

At any rate, I see nothing in those men or indeed in myself that would make me feel that any of us can sensibly be regarded as mad or monsters.

Now fast forward to 22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivik has set off a bomb in Oslo and is now killing young people as fast as he can get to them on the island of Utoeya. A good friend of mine refers to him as ‘the beast’. Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian tells us ‘...the killings were an act of random madness.’ Today's Sun manages to describe Breivik as both a ‘mad gunman’ and a ‘neo-Nazi monster’ within the space of a few lines.

Well, that’s that, then. Case closed and compartmentalised. We can file Breivik away under ‘monster’ or ‘psychopath’ and breathe a sigh of relief. None of us is like him, so this is a one-off. OK, another in a long series of one-offs, but still just another one-off.

Or is it? Perhaps Breivik, like Eichmann, is neither mad nor a monster. Perhaps he's another ordinary human being who has allowed himself to be duped by some deeply, unconscionably bad ideas, and unlike others who share those ideas, been prepared to take extreme action in their pursuit. No doubt out of a sense of duty. But to label him a ‘lunatic’ firstly does a disservice to the millions suffering from genuine mental disorder, the vast majority of whom are a threat to no-one, and secondly dodges the issue of the ideas that inspired Breivik, which are still around and still capable of inspiring heinous crimes.

If we accept that such ideas can drive even ordinary people – not monsters, not ‘lunatics’ – into doing utterly monstrous things, then we might perhaps be a lot warier about them. We might see that there’s nothing anodyne about David Cameron denouncing multiculturalism, about the Swiss banning minarets, about the French government banning the Moslem veil. Ordinary people can be seduced by that kind of vicious idea into doing extraordinary things. They decide they don’t need to share the earth with certain others, and in mercifully rare cases they have the determination and the means to take a gun and act on their vicious beliefs.

Let’s leave the conclusion to Hannah Arendt  – who could do it better?  Eichmann’s last words were ‘Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.’ ‘I shall not forget them’? He was about to die. As Arendt points out, ‘In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.’

And then comes her chilling conclusion, ending with the words that are her great contribution to all such debates: ‘It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that his long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.’

The banality of evil. Evil isn’t extraordinary. It isn’t special. It’s banal, it’s all around, it’s in us all.

Probably best not to lose sight of that fact. It might not be smart simply to consign evil to some convenient box labelled ‘monstrosity’ or ‘insanity’. After all, surely we can all think of occasions when humanity has done that before, and evil in all its banality just gets out and comes back to bite us again.


Mark Reynolds said...

Over here, the very people Breivik cited in his manifesto - the ones who believe Islam is inherently evil, the Muslims are all fifth columnists bent on destroying the west, and that our governments have abdicated responsibility for protecting their people - are firmly on the side of the "lunatic' coin. I tend to think that Breivik just had the courage of their convictions. Which, admittedly, is not evidence of not being a lunatic.

David Beeson said...

No evidence, as you rightly say, of being in their right mind - but a good reason for refusing to extend the definition of lunacy to embrace them - I see no justification for exonerating them of responsibility for their ugly views, or for the results when someone takes them further in action than they do.

Any more, I hasten to add for fairness and balance (which do after all matter), than I would exonerate an Osama Bin Laden.

Awoogamuffin said...

Charlie Brooker's article complaining about the media's coverage of the terrorist attack is quite funny, and insightful. Did you read it?

David Beeson said...

Thanks for the link - it's bang on: all those guesses, and it wouldn't matter so much if they were pure guesses, but actually they're guesses based on, and aimed to confirm, prejudice