Michael Kelly SJ. The banality of evil

Jun 26, 2014

Denial has many faces. Some of them are necessary. If any of us entertained what might befall us each day and the harm we could come to, we would never get out of bed. But denial also has corrosive and destructive effect if we deny the facts of our experience or refuse to be honest in questioning our own behavior.

Watching Scott Morrison behaving like an outdated school master in telling asylum seekers what their fate is to be, as reported with the original video in the The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/25/morrison-asylum-seekers-should-go-home-or-face-very-very-long-detention is about as complete an example of one human being bullying and brutalizing others as you need to see.

But what makes it even worse is the abject failure of the Minister to realize that this is not just Australia’s problem but one shared with many countries in the Asian region which needs a regional solution – something in the Australian Government’s power develop.

Witnessing such inhumanity is not a pretty sight. It’s not so much that such behavior is the work of some calculating monster. Scott Morrison is just following Government orders and telling Australia’s armed forces and immigration officials to do the same.

The dehumanization involved in such behavior echoes what exercised Hannah Arendt said http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt when she witnessed first hand the Jerusalem trial the Nazi mass murder, Adolf Eichmann

A Jewish escapee herself from a Nazi camp in France, Arendt earned the opprobrium of Jews around the world for her assessment of Eichmann http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichmann_in_Jerusalem

She thought that the common understanding of Eichmann had missed the most important fact. What upset most of her critics was her claim that anti-Semitism was not the primary motivation for his villainy.

After observing Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, she formed the view that the man was a simple mediocrity, a bureaucrat with nothing more than ambition to progress through the Nazi hierarchy to motivate him and a complete absence of any sense of personal responsibility for the heinous acts that filled his days.

Arendt came to believe that ideologically based interpretations of his behavior and motivation greatly exaggerated his significance and capacity and missed the most obvious fact about Eichmann: he was simply a nobody who became somebody through being part of something which just happened to be the SS murder machine.

Far from being the monster he was made out to be, Eichmann was an instance of what Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

His condition is something that extends well beyond the obvious infamy of Adolf Hitler and the determination of Heinrich Himmler to provide the “final solution” to the “problem” of the Jews.

She explained the conclusion she came to about Eichmann’s banality in terms that she learnt from her professor, lover and mentor, Martin Heidegger, who described human beings as human beings if they can connect head and heart in searching thought.

The absence of that connection is the abject inability to connect human passion and reflective thought in consciousness. The self-conscious and objective evaluation of actions according to a standard of good and bad, right and wrong defines the difference between humans and animals.

Eichmann failed the test because, as he repeatedly said, he was “just following orders” and accepted no personal responsibility for the moral quality of the orders. In other words, Eichmann was not smart or even very efficient. He was just a bureaucratic automaton.

Minister Morrison is getting and giving orders. He is following his orders that come from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Cabinet. The Coalition endorses them and the Labor Party has complied with them. The military and Departmental officers are implementing a set of orders that consign 30,000 people to life destroying experiences that are justified by being “policy”.

It’s the banality of it all that fails to raise objections from enough Australians to see the policy and the orders changed. We know what Hannah Arendt would say. But spare a thought for Harold Macmillan a British Prime Minister in the 1950s and ‘60s who observed in the 1930s that when the Establishment is of one voice about anything, you can bet they’re wrong.

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