Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil — and she spent the rest of her life defending it.
Her point was simply this: Eichmann was a nebbish nobody, rather than the larger-than-life monster his crimes would suggest, and she believed his objection that he was simply following orders was sincere. That’s what good people do — right? Follow the orders of the lawfully ordained authority? Isn’t that, as our Attorney General recently reminded us, what the Bible — (allegedly) the supreme moral authority — says one should do?
If, instead of executing Jews, Eichmann had been ordered to make certain that every Jew in Germany received a cake on his birthday, why, he would have done that with the same unthinking, morally neutral efficiency. What Eichmann did was monstrous, but he was not himself a monster — he was disengaged and neutral; he had surrendered whatever manhood he ever had and debased himself to the level of a machine part that performs a task. (Like Abraham, come to think of it.)
And that, exactly, is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil — unthinking moral neutrality.
We now have a contemporary example of the banality of evil.
A 10-year-old Mexican girl with Down syndrome was separated from her mother while entering the US and put into a federal facility, Mexico’s foreign minister said Tuesday while denouncing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy.
Luis Videgaray said at least 21 Mexican kids have been separated from their parents in recent weeks, including the “heartbreaking case” of the 10-year-old girl — whose father is a legal US resident, according to the Wall Street Journal.
This should never have happened, though I don’t doubt that the ICE agent who oversaw this would say he was just following orders. Arendt would weep, as should we all.