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Ethics and Morality

Confronting Evil, Again

Why do people commit acts of evil? Are they monsters? How can we stop them?

Source: RandomHouse/usedwithpermission

A guest post by Pamela Katz

Why do people commit acts of evil? How can we stop them? What are the social conditions permitting an organized group of people to justify—even celebrate—murder and destruction?

Philosopher Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil,” famously defined the concept of how hundreds of thousands of “ordinary’ citizens could participate in World War II’s genocide. When Arendt was witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann — a Nazi who organized the transportation of innocent civilians to Hitler’s extermination camps — she raised the question still confronting us today in the aftermath of Paris, Mali, Beirut and most recently as we held our breath over Brussels: how do we simultaneously acknowledge the “unspeakable horror “ of the crimes committed against innocent non-combatants, with the apparent ordinariness of those who initiate and carry out such unspeakable atrocities?

We see photographs of the terrorists; they often look as affable as their victims. Shouldn’t they appear as something different?

Hannah Arendt’s genius was in recognizing the everyday nature of evil. She attempted to reconcile, in the case of Eichmann who sent thousands to their death, the evil of his deeds with the “the ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.”

Most controversial, perhaps, was Arendt’s refusal to define Eichmann as a monster. As American author Mary McCarthy explained, echoing her friend Arendt’s point, “Calling someone a monster does not make him more guilty” but instead “makes him less so by classing him with beasts and devils.” To render evil as inhuman is to exonerate humans from accepting responsibility for the evil committed by members of their community. Arendt argued, “It would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster” but “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

So are those who kill by strapping on suicide belts “monsters”? Monsters are defined by the fact they do not fit into any category but are instead sui generis. Members of ISIS or Al Queda are not monsters insofar as they are not “unique” but are instead “terrifyingly normal.” That is, there are too many of them to dismiss and they are distributed all over the globe.

The villains who carried out the senseless murders in Paris and Mali (and NYC in 2001) are very frightening people; insisting that they are fundamentally abnormal in any way may lead us into our own merciless inhumanity.

Extremists, fanatics and unbridled militants of every stripe may act in ways that are inhumane; the only way we can triumph in the long-term battle is by exemplifying the best kind of humans.

And yet if it’s a weak argument to insist that all Islamic fundamentalists are true “monsters,” it’s equally unconvincing to insist that every refugee or victim of violence is an angel. Comparisons to Anne Frank, while moving and even illuminating, are also misleading. The facile categories of “monster” and “angel” should be stricken from the public and political vocabulary. Those who resist the complexity of their mission are not qualified to carry it out.

We must, as Arendt would encourage us, endeavor to see everyone – murderers, suicide bombers, victims and refugees alike – as human beings to be judged as such. We must find them sympathetic or unsympathetic depending upon our own, very human, value system.

Finally, and most difficult: if we insist that both the Islamic extremists, and the Syrian, Afghan and African refugees (to name a few) are all human, then we are all obliged to examine the conditions under which such heinous acts have so rapidly become a commonplace part of our lives. If we believe that most human beings come into the world with the hope and desire for love and connection and genuine comradeship, why is senseless and evil murder and destruction increasingly on the rise?

Why, as Hannah Arendt asked, is a “new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commit[ing] his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong”?

There are no simple answers, but we must face the profound questions. We can begin by remembering that great thinkers have pondered evil since the dawn of Man. Their wisdom should help us to be better able to address it—and confront it—when we meet it again.


Pamela Katz’s most recent work, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill. Three Women and Germany on the Brink (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese - 2015) is coming out in paperback on December 8, 2015. She co-wrote the film, Hannah Arendt (2013). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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