The Banality of Evil Revisited

Hannah Arendt was exactly right in 1963 when she had an epiphany while writing about Adolph Eichmann, realizing in a profound moment of clarity that the great evils in the world are not the work of a few sociopaths, but are committed by ordinary people who accept what they are told by their government and then proceed to normalize whatever actions they might take. Sadly, under the right circumstances, we are easily persuaded to do the bidding of the state when it comes to killing.

Six years ago we were rabid for revenge and war making. Many thought that killing bin Laden and his protectors, the Taliban, would settle the score for the attack on our country. However, the President and his men wanted a wider battle, so they used lies and propaganda to sell a war with Iraq. Through the power and resources of the state, war making with Iraq was promoted as honorable, clergy gathered to anoint it a just cause, and most people accepted without question what they were being told. They responded with the shameful flag waving and nationalism that masqueraded as patriotism. Those that urged restraint and voiced opposition to the war were savaged as traitors.

But after five years, support for the war has plummeted, because the war people got was not the one they were sold. People believed, like Bush, it would be a war on the cheap, quick, requiring no sacrifice or human cost, a real feel good kind of war. But it has been anything but cheap. In seeking to atone for being bamboozled by Bush they recently elected enough Democrats to cut off funding and end the war. But they got fooled again. Ironically, the Democrats would rather appear weak and helpless when dealing with Bush so as not to appear weak and helpless on war making. In response, many people feel resigned to continue what appears to be a never-ending war. They have moved on in their lives choosing to ignore the atrocities committed in their names.

Over time the normalization of behaviors even extends to officers of the state who had a hand in promoting the war. Nowhere was that more on display this week than during the congressional hearings on Iraq. In the dulcet tones of civility, men and women went about carrying out their state duties in hearings ostensibly designed to find out some truth about a monstrous war. Far removed from the carnage they have created in Iraq and the stench of rotting bodies, they calmly chatted about the minutiae of their war. With no display or even any sense of outrage they quietly listened as the General smoothed over any rough edges that might cause them to lose the least little bit of sleep in their comfortable beds at night.

The only bit of reality and dignity that was interjected into any of the hearings were the shouts from the anti-war protestors who were quickly silenced when they were removed from the room. Their truth is that we murdered a lot of people, destroyed a country for nothing, and have created more hatred and animosity in the world that will surely come back like a rushing tide and wash over us in the years to come. But that reality does not exist within the vocabulary of the state and our elected representatives were careful not to stray from their script.

Two days after the hearings ended, President Bush, propped up in the background by the symbols of state, spoke to the nation. Like Eichmann, the consummate bureaucrat carrying out his duties, Bush too demonstrated once again that he lacks the necessary imagination to understand the morality of what he is doing and the human costs involved. Weeks earlier, in another carefully staged event, Bush spoke to a national VFW convention full of old men. He led them in cheering the war and as such the slaughter and maiming of the next generation of young servicemen and women. Just last week we learned that he told the Australian prime minister that we were "kicking ass" in Iraq. Perhaps the best example of the banality of this man occurred during a recent interview with his biographer. When asked what he will do when he leaves office he responded, without the least sense of shame, that he was interested in making money to replenish his coffers that had been depleted during his years in office.

However, Bush is only a co-conspirator in this ongoing drama along with the plotters and planners, the technicians and bureaucrats, the generals and soldiers who all go about their daily duties unfazed by the consequences of their actions doing just what they are told to do. Meanwhile our elected officials sit in leather bound chairs pontificating about trivia. They wonder aloud whether or not troop levels should be reduced by a few thousand soldiers over the next year, all the while raiding the treasury to continue funding this immoral war. Even John Boehner, the house minority leader, dismissed the bloodletting and human carnage as insignificant to the greater mission of the state.

And what about the rest of us, those who championed this war from the outset and those of us who knew better? What is our responsibility for this evil? Decades from now will our grandchildren wonder how we could have allowed this carnage and will they question why we stood by and did nothing?

Bud McClure is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth and can be emailed at