The Banality of Evil Revisited: The Case of Drones

by John Kaag, Peter Aldinger

Relentless focus on radical forms of evil risks blinding us to evils much less exceptional, and much closer to home.

First published: 15 March, 2013 | Category: Civil Liberties, Foreign policy, Philosophy and Theory, Terror/War

We are right to look back on World War II to learn something about evil—and we often do—but what we stand to learn from this history may come as a surprise.  We learn that Holocaust-grade evil is not the product of exceptionally wicked people, but rather surprisingly ordinary ones. This is what Hannah Arendt, describing the Holocaust, called the “banality of evil.” Since 2001, the United States has fought and fetishized a form of radical evil.  In so doing, its citizens may have lost sight of the fact that there is another, banal kind of evil, which may be living undetected a little closer to home. 

This oversight and its attendant confusion has been reflected in many public statements of the current administration, starting with President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech.  “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”  But Hitler and the leaders of Al Qaeda are not the same when it comes to evil-doing, a fact that becomes clear when we rethink the banality of evil. 

Arendt was a reporter for the New Yorker at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in April, 1961.  Eichmann was a lieutenant colonel in the Nazi SS and one of the masterminds of the Holocaust.  Arendt, like most of us, probably expected Eichmann to be a monster, some anti-Semitic zealot who took singular pleasure in the persecution of the Jews. 

Surprisingly, this was not the case.

Arendt writes that: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.  From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”  What was terrifying about Eichmann was that someone so boring could commit such extraordinarily evil acts.  He had no unique commitment to a radical ideology, no special loyalty to a fiendish leader, no sui generis desire to torture or kill. 

He was just doing his job.  

And this is the truly gut-wrenching aspect of the Eichmann trial—that people like us could be responsible for, or complicit in, an atrocity, and not just any atrocity, the atrocity of atrocities.  According to Arendt, the case stood as a painful reminder that evil could be born in the midst of the commonplace, in an age and a culture that operated seamlessly, precisely, unstoppably, to obscure the injustices it committed.  That was, after all, how the Third Reich worked.  Arendt suggested that the horror of the Holocaust was a product of ordinary people like Eichmann (just like us) thoughtlessly going through the motions of a well-ordered, yet morally flawed, society.  The banality of evil emerges in the tyranny of the thoughtless majority.  This is what Arendt means when she suggests that “There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.”

But here we come to see the difference between the evil of the Holocaust and that of Islamic extremism.  Islamic extremism is, by definition, radical.  There is nothing particularly banal about it. It requires significant sacrifices from individuals, who use violence or the threat of it to compel an otherwise unwilling group or community to accede to a set of demands.

These terroristic, or guerrilla, tactics, undertaken by enthusiastic volunteers, are employed both internationally and nationally. The attacks of September 11, 2001 can be seen as part of a global insurgency the strategic principles of which underpinned much of the subsequent insurgent action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The point here is that whatever one may think of the Islamic extremists’ ‘cause’—and what that is isn’t always clear—they more often than not make a radical decision to transgress societal norms as a means through which they can achieve their objective/s (expelling the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, restoring the Islamic caliphate, establishing an Islamic state, forcing a national government to withdraw from a war, etc.).

Eichmann’s case is very different from this.

The total dehumanization of the Jewish people by the National Socialist regime together with threats of retribution to deter any type of assistance to Jews, and the bureaucratization of their systematic extermination, created a unique set of self-reinforcing societal norms. It became extremely easy for individuals, such as Eichmann—for almost the entire German population—to acquiesce to the total marginalization, and attempted extermination, of the Jewish community; much easier in fact than opposing it.

In the end, Eichmann’s actions conformed to the normative and legal imperatives of his society. The radicalness of evil then, in contrast to banality, emerges in an obsessive, highly motivated minority, rather than from within a conditioned thoughtless majority (though this is not to say that Islamic extremists haven’t undergone conditioning or operate within their own distinct ‘society’, they obviously do; but most have made a decision to join that other society, having been previously immersed in one that prohibits the killing of an other, outside of state law).

The trial of Adolf Eichmann proffers an implicit warning to every liberal democratic society: beware the normalization of the extraordinary. The Nazis did not suddenly seize power and implement the ‘final solution,’ they did so slowly, incrementally. Yet each step towards dominance was a step towards such a state – the permanent ‘state of exception’, as Giorgio Agamben terms it—whereby what was previously unthinkable could not only be considered, but ultimately accepted as normal. Much has been written about the indefinite detention of ‘enemy combatants’ and how this represents just such a situation.  But what about the expanded use of drones and the revelation that President Obama personally oversees a ‘kill list’?  And what about White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s recent assertion that the use of drones was “legal, ethical and wise?” Are we to take Carney at his word and happily accept this unusual statement as a description of a brave new world? 

We would prefer not to. 

The practice of assassination has been outlawed since 1976, following the revelation that the CIA had attempted to kill various foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro, leading to President Ford issuing a proscriptive executive order. The Obama administration's justification for its revival was based upon the same rationale as his predecessor's: since the U.S. was 'at war' with Al Qaeda, preemptive action was justified, only here it was 'targeted killings' and not the invasion of another country. Drones had already been used during the Bush administration, but the practice was expanded under President Obama to include their use in Pakistan and Yemen, i.e. outside of the active theater of war, at least as it is conventionally understood. While the technical precision of drones armed with Hellfire missiles cannot be denied, this precision does little answer the serious legal and moral questions that attend their use. Yet the American public seems largely disinterested in engaging with these issues (a recent study suggested that only 13 percent of Americans know that most drone strikes occur in Pakistan); their use is deemed, like the indefinite detention of ‘enemy combatants’, militarily necessary, and therefore acceptable. Ironically, Obama’s policy of ‘targeted killings’ may be more popular with the American public because it does away with the stubborn problem indefinite detention presents: what to do with alleged terrorists once they are captured?

The debate surrounding individual rights in relation to the government continues, especially with regards to their respective domestic social and financial obligations, but there is a glaring lacuna when it comes to issues of human rights and national security. Under Bush much of the citizenry accepted indefinite detention and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (what others have decried as torture); under Obama, the practice of assassination—once officially banned—has, like that of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ not only been revived with little to no domestic opposition, but often enthusiastically supported. In Arendt’s words, drone strikes have become “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” 

John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Peter Aldinger just completed his time working for the American Bar Association in Liberia as the Liberian Legal Information Institute's program manager.  Both received their M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge in 2006.  

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