ISIS, Boko Haram & the Banality of Evil

When the German philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem between 1961-1962, she drew the conclusion that far from being psychopaths-the majority of people (Nazis from all walks of life) who participated in the killing of 11 million people, (1.1 million children) including the mentally disabled, mentally ill, Jews, Gypsies, Christians, Muslims and other minorities, had made clear moral choices. She argued that:
“…under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation” (Arendt, 2006)
Her words are a chilling reminder of the precipice humanity finds itself on as we bear witness to the atrocities being carried out by the group called ISIS across parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and the Nigerian group, Boko Haram in West Africa.
Essentially Arendt argues that when any person subordinates their own ability to think for themselves, and embraces the ideological narrative of a group, they also give up significant aspect of their unique status as a human being. A person’s ability to think with integrity and to value the dignity of all human life separates those who choose through their own moral turpitude the banality of evil-that choice to go with the crowd, to get lost in the mass psychology of hysterical conformity.
Her argument is corroborated through a number of interviews conducted by Gilbert (Gilbert, 1947) during the Nuremberg trials. Among the men Gilbert interviewed over the months leading to the trials were, Hermann Goering, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, Julius Streicher and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Each told a different story, yet each claimed to have only done their duty within the ideological narrative of Nazism. They had as Arendt so succinctly put it, made deliberate personal moral choices while serving an evil cause.
And in recent times arguments of ‘simply carrying out orders’ or being ‘called to a higher cause’ have been heard during trials at the International Criminal Court. Such was the defense of Slobodan Milošević, the former President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Charles Taylor the former President of Liberia. Each of these men failed their own unique destiny to be fully human and fully alive and to know themselves as they are known, and to fully embrace their own dignity as a human being and the collective dignity of all humanity.
Yet we would be mistaken to think the banality of evil is only to be found in the grand narratives of religious extremism, or the secular political narratives of totalitarianism or the aggressive discourse of advanced capitalism. Failure to think for ourselves, to question everything, to critically appraise all arguments of certainty creates a fertile breeding ground for those without a mind of their own, to follow those who have lost their minds.
References:
Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Classics.
Gilbert, G. (1947). Nuremberg Diary. New York: Farrar Straus.

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