[4 Nov 1999] When the Killing Stopped
[5 Nov 1999] Worst Crimes of the Millennium
[8 Nov 1999] Four Gates to the City
[9 Nov 1999] Conviction of E. German Chief Upheld
[10 Nov 1999] Prisoner's Dilemma
[11 Nov 1999] The Mechanical Demon
[12 Nov 1999] Psalm 23
[19 Nov 1999] Translator's Note
[22 Nov 1999] Future Shocks
[24 Nov 1999] Worlds Enough, and Time
[26 Nov 1999] Everybody Knows
[29 Nov 1999] The German Atomic Bomb
[30 Nov 1999] The Endless Frontier
[1 Dec 1999] The Scarlet Pimpernel
[2 Dec 1999] Was the Great War Necessary?
[3 Dec 1999] Bullet Proof Soul
[6 Dec 1999] Rocannon's World I
[7 Dec 1999] Rocannon's World II
[8 Dec 1999] Rocannon's World III
[9 Dec 1999] The Intelligence Gap
[15 Dec 1999] A Deepness in the Sky

From the Wall Street Journal, (August 31, 1999).

Evil Isn't Banal


You're probably familiar with the origin of the banality of evil: It was the subtitle of Hannah Arendt 's 1963 book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." The phrase was born of Arendt 's remarkable naivete as a journalist. Few would dispute her eminence as a philosopher, but she was the world's worst court reporter, someone who could be put to shame by any veteran courthouse scribe from a New York tabloid.

It somehow didn't occur to Arendt that a defendant like Eichmann, facing execution if convicted, might lie on the stand about his crimes and his motives. Did she actually expect Eichmann to repeat what he's reported to have said at the end of the war: "I shall laugh when I jump into the grave because of the feeling that I killed five million Jews"? In the absence of such an admission, Arendt chose instead to take the Nazi at his word when he took the stand and testified that he really didn't harbor any special animosity toward Jews, that when it came to this little business of exterminating the Jews he was just a harried bureaucrat, a paper shuffler "just following orders" from above.

Arendt then proceeded to make Eichmann's disingenuous self-portrait the basis for a sweeping generalization about the nature of evil. It is a generalization that suggests that conscious, willful, knowing evil is irrelevant or virtually nonexistent; that the form evil most often assumes -- the form evil took in Hitler's Germany -- is that of faceless little men following orders, and that old-fashioned evil is the stuff of childish fairytales.

There are, of course, a few problems with this analysis. Even if it were true that Eichmann was just following orders, someone had to be giving the orders. In Eichmann's case, those orders came from Reinhard Heydrich, a fanatical hater who was relaying with enormous enthusiasm the exterminationist orders of Adolf Hitler. And as Daniel Goldhagen noted in "Hitler's Willing Executioners," a great many ordinary Germans showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the genocidal tasks to which they had been assigned.