HomeCommentaryBanality of evil

Banality of evil

Christian theology believes in the existence of evil. Demonic possessions both in horror movies and in the bible are evil’s dramatic expressions.

People are afraid and can easily shun away from this form of evil. But what if evil is not demonic or perverted?

What if evil becomes banal and normal, commonplace and ordinary? What if it is clothed in the garments of obedience, duty, obligation, purpose, patriotism, or “truth”?

Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” easily comes to mind. To be “banal” is to be commonplace, routine, every day.

Arendt was sent to Jerusalem by the New York Times as a reporter at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann, a holocaust perpetrator, was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and was brought to Jerusalem for trial.

In what later was published as a book (Eichmann in Jerusalem), Arendt observes that Eichmann — the person Hitler put in charge to systematically deport millions of Jews in trains to Auschwitz – was a terrifyingly normal man.

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He was just doing things out of his duty. He did not hate the Jews, neither did he love them. He was not also very intelligent.

He uses stock phrases and clichés which tells us that he could not think for himself, nor was critical about what he was doing.

When he knew that Hitler and the German respectable majority endorsed mass murder as the “Final Solution”, he just went with the flow. He just obeyed the Führer.

The psychologists in the trial did not find anything wrong with him. He was not a psychopath but terrifyingly normal and felt so.

In his testimony, he said: “I am not a monster I am made out to be. I am victim of a fallacy.” He did not say he was just a scapegoat.

He wanted to do so as an excuse but the court did not believe him. He was hung in the gallows on May 31, 1962, still confidently thinking that he did right up to the end.

If he was not a monster, maybe he was a “clown”. But his worst clowneries have sent millions to the gas chambers. This is the tragedy of evil as banal.

These people were just following orders, thinking of doing good for the country and humanity. And many others accept the terrible things they do as normal.

There are new versions of the banality of evil in our times. In the face of the ruling of the International Criminal Court, Senator Bato de la Rosa, the implementor of Duterte’s War on Drugs, said: “We did not do the War on Drugs for ourselves, or to make ourselves rich, but for the benefit of the nation and for the youth.”

And his colleagues from the Senate closed ranks to protect him from the ICC. They were bound to do their duty to a colleague. One of them said: “We won’t surrender Bato to foreigners.”

His boss, the past president, said the same line years ago: “I did it because I want to protect your children and their future. Hindi akin iyan. Kayong lahat ng taong Pilipino ang nakinabang diyan… Everything, I did it for my country. Hindi ako nakinabang diyan. Wala akong satisfaction diyan. Hindi ako nagkaroon ng pera ni sentimos diyan,” Duterte said (PNA). And millions in the crowd cheered! The did the same for Hitler.

(I did it because I want to protect your children and their future. That’s not mine. All of you Filipino people benefited from that… Everything, I did it for my country. I did not benefit from that. I have no satisfaction with that. I didn’t have a penny in it.)

And the banal evil continues in our midst.

The members of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) — with a substantial budget from the government funds — continue to “red tag”, malign, hunt, and endanger the lives of Indigenous People, human rights workers, grassroots organizers, student activists.

Some were killed, others detained. The commission members also profess to just do their work for the country.

I am also thinking of the simple and ordinary policemen who pursued and killed the “drug addicts” and the “communists”. They are otherwise loving fathers to their children.

We are overwhelmed by the heinous deeds and the pain they caused the poor people. Yet these policemen are not monsters.

At the end of the day, they go home to their families or bring them out for meals on weekends. The killing was just part of their duty.

The Office of the President and the Vice President — the two highest positions of the land — are requesting millions of confidential funds into their budget in the midst of hunger and poverty of our people.

Their lack of accountability and brazen corruption is revolting. It is evil. Yet our legislators in both Congress and Senate approved it without question, without argument (except from one or two whom they also silenced) in the name of “parliamentary courtesy”. These “honorable” bureaucrats think they have to do this for the good of our country.

And while all these things are going on, the majority of our people, especially the economic elite who backs this regime, just continue with their own lives as if nothing happened. Everything is terrifyingly normal, dangerously banal.

“The trouble with Eichmann,” Arendt writes, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, and 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.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 276).

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.

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