Monday, 6 August 2007

The Banality of Evil

On the 11th April 1961, Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. It could legitimately be described as the trial of the century. The man who organised the holocaust being put on trial by the people he had tried to destroy. The New Yorker magazine asked the philosopher, Hannah Ardent, to cover the trial. What she found was not a fanatic or a sadist or a psychopath but an ordinary, almost boring person playing by the rules of the society in which he lived. He was so apparently normal, that Ardent subtitled her classic account of the trial: 'report on the banality of evil.'

A similar feeling seems to have struck Observer columnist, Jasper Gerard while following the trial of Chris Langham. In todays Observer, he examines how it is possible that Langham 'is not the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang of red-top demonisation' but a man 'into carbon offsetting and charity fun runs.' He concludes that we need to comprehend as well as condemn, if we are to prevent people from turning into abusers.

The need to look into what causes people to commit unspeakable acts was underlined by an experiment conducted a few months after Eichmann's trial. A psychologist named Stanley Millgram wanted to find out if men like Eichmann could really have committed mass murder simply because they were following orders. A volunteer is presented with a 'teacher' asking questions of a 'student' (apparently another volunteer but in reality a member of the research team.) Every time the 'student' gets one of the questions wrong, the 'teacher' orders the volunteer to administer a large electronic shock to the 'student.' The results were startling; rather than as might be expected disobeying an order to cause another human being considerable pain, it appears that if an authority figure tells us to do something that in most cases we will obey.

This fundamentally altered our view of the perpetrators of the holocaust. It suggested that many, perhaps most of us, would in certain circumstances be willing to participate in an atrocity. This is not for a minute to excuse anybody. Just because we choose not to say no does not mean that we shouldn't. What it does do is force us to consider more complicated and more ambiguous explanations of how the holocaust came about. It forces us to examine how a situation came about, where mass murder was not only considered socially acceptable but to be civic duty.

To dismiss people like Eichmann and Langham as monsters is an understandable impulse, it allows us to avoid the uncomfortable truth that they are humans just like us. It is, however, a mistake because it allows us to forget that monsters are made not born and that the only way we can unmake them is to understand them. As distasteful a process as that may be.

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