Monday, December 6, 2010

"When evil walks into a room, it is not wearing horns and a tail"

I was listening to a podcast of Krista Tippett On Being this past weekend while hiking. She was having a conversation with Darius Rejali, an Iranian-born American scholar who studies and writes about torture. His most memorable line was: "When evil walks into a room, it is not wearing horns and a tail". He said that one does not have to read Hannah Arendt to understand the banality of evil.

Yet for me, reading Eichmann in Jerusalem did produce the very epiphany evoked by the book's subtitle: A report on the Banality of Evil. More than any other previous experience, Arendt's narrative wove for me the convincing tale demonstrating how easily one can slide into evil. The journey is incremental and, by virtue of this, insidious. The travel companions also matter -- they must be people whom one respects and emulates, and, the logic becomes that, if they are acting in a certain way, it must then be OK for one to act similarly. She illustrates these ideas by recounting the testimony of Eichmann, a petty clerk, a follower essentially, who ascended in the Nazi bureaucracy to the level of orchestrating a massive genocide. The story is one of almost witless and blind compliance with the higher-ups, all people commanding Eichmann's respect and admiration. The thesis is so spooky that it demands constant self-examination to assure avoiding the barely noticeable descent into evil.

Similarly, Rejali described people who are hired to perpetrate torture not as psychopaths, passionate about hurting others, but more as methodical disciplinarians, careful not to inflict too much damage, lest the victim expire prior to giving the wanted information. So, essentially, they are just "doing their jobs". Just as marketers who sell us cigarettes are doing their jobs. I am sure that they do not perceive themselves as evil -- they have families, children, they have their faith, they play golf and eat Chinese food, just like the rest of us. They drive their children to soccer games and sit on school committees and boards of charitable organizations. Yet, what they do at work is follow orders and money and sell certain death.

And how much other evil gets perpetrated by regular people? What about climate change deniers? Because they do not have unequivocal proof that humans are catalyzing an environmental catastrophe, they feel justified in prioritizing the economy over the facts. They do not understand that observational science does not provide proof beyond the shadow of the doubt, and we indeed need to heed the circumstantial evidence before us. Yet, since respected politicians deny any possibility of an impending man-made environmental disaster, citizen deniers feel justified in their willful ignorance.

Am I stretching this concept too much? I do not think so. Nicholas Christakis and colleagues have been showing the importance of networks to our health, and it is not a stretch to imagine that networks may be critical to the health of other common concerns. These include the environment, and may even include our vast and growing economic disparities, which are no longer merely causing illness and inconvenience, but are responsible for killing our children.

So, next time we cavalierly dismiss others' concerns about shared resources, next time we turn our heads away from socially and economically inconvenient realities, let us inspect methodically the possibility that this very banality of evil may be working to insinuate itself into who we are. Because an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure.  


  1. Thanks for a post that will smolder in the unconscious mind of this reader, possibly leading to a change in action down the road, if reinforced in the right way at the right time by the right energy. Smoldering.

  2. I add my thanks. I wish you could get this published, say, in People magazine or something similar. It seems virtually impossible to cross lines into verbally highly fortified but wrong-headed and in fact deliberately deceptive camps. You might find interesting Arthur Kleinman's book,What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger which presents portraits of people who didn't choose as Eichmann did. Kleinman is an anthropologist and psychiatrist in a couple of departments at Harvard and at a couple of hospitals. The issue of making moral and ethical choices in a world of diverse beliefs is I think critical today.