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The “Banality of Evil” and The Political Culture of Hatred By: Paul Hollander
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 19, 2002


THERE WAS A TIME when the most massive and premeditated forms of political violence, exemplified by the Holocaust were associated with the "banality of evil" -- a concept introduced by Hannah Arendt. She popularized the idea that the Holocaust was a form of bureaucratized mass murder carried out by "desk murderers" who had no strong feelings about it, perfectly ordinary human beings, such as Eichman and his associates, impersonal and interchangeable cogs in the gigantic killing machine. Anybody could have performed the task; no political passion or ideological conviction was involved or required. It was implied that this type of violence was emblematic of modernity and mass society and their key characteristics: anonymity, standardization, homogenization, impersonality as well as increasing specialization and reliance on technology. Stanley Milgram's experiments on obedience to authority further bolstered the notion that people are able and willing to inflict great pain and suffering on total strangers for no reason other than their willingness to obey authority, as the Nazis did, supposedly.

In the wake of these theories it has become widely accepted, with a curious mixture of horror and relish -- especially among intellectuals -- that potentially all of us are amoral, robotic monsters, but monsters without convictions, distinction or originality. There was something morbidly fascinating about the combination of extraordinary moral outrages (such as the Nazis perpetrated) and the pedestrian, mundane character of the perpetrators. The popularity of these ideas was nurtured by the questioning of modernity which brought us technology, mass production, efficiency, bureaucracy, impersonality, mass culture and the decline of community. These ideas were especially congenial with the protest movements of the 1960s whose stock in trade were impassioned critiques of impersonality, dehumanization and faceless bureaucracy.

The banality of evil, approach also lent itself to a generous extension of the idea of "complicity" and the rejection of American (or any other Western) society. If anybody could readily become a mass murderer, or assist in mass murder, and if beliefs and motivation were largely irrelevant to behavior, then no society was immune to genocidal temptations. Moreover the allegedly homogenized mass societies overly reliant on technology such as the U.S. might have a special affinity to devising new, efficient forms of mass murder, even genocide. Not by accident did "genocide" and "genocidal" become favorite epithets of the social critics and political activists of the 1960s (hardly ever directed at truly genocidal political systems). It may also be recalled here that the 1960s generation of radicals took great pleasure in comparing the United States to Nazi Germany (they spelled America with a "k") and whenever possible threw at it terms like "fascist," and "nazi" and compared American institutions to the Gestapo, the storm troopers and Auschwitz.

The Vietnam War further stimulated the inclination to associate mass murder with technology and view the United States as a genocidal country intent on killing good-natured peasants impersonally with sophisticated technology from high altitudes, rather than in manly, authentic, face-to-face combat. American soldiers in this perspective were "professional killers" and their lack of passion was also held against them by many anti-war activists. Repeatedly such critics of the United States contrasted favorably the supposedly poorly armed, deeply committed, simple guerillas, operating in small groups with the mechanized might of the U.S. forces for whom fighting was a "job" to be performed impersonally and efficiently.

The recent waves of political violence committed by Islamic groups and individuals have dealt a heavy blow to the theories and ideas Arendt popularized. A greatly neglected factor of political conflict and violence suddenly and dramatically reemerged, namely, fanatical hatred and the religious-political beliefs generating it. It was these beliefs that legitimated the ruthless violence the hatred inspired. Rarely in history has the relationship between belief and behavior been so clear as in the actions of the Islamic suicide pilots and bombers fortified and reassured as they had been by conceptions and personifications of evil defined with great clarity and held unhesitatingly. There was nothing banal, impersonal, dispassionate or detached about their behavior. A pure, burning hatred of the evil eagerly embraced motivated them as well as certain specific, if peculiar but deeply felt beliefs in other-wordily rewards. (More down to earth motives also played a part as families receive substantial material compensation for their "martyred" sons or daughters in addition to a marked improvement of their social standing in the community which applauds suicide bombings.)

In numerous Arab countries and communities a hate-filled political culture evolved which enshrines violence as a sacred mission directed at the designated objects of hate. In these settings virulent hatred is inculcated from an early age; it is disseminated by the mass media, in schools and places of worship and sanctioned by both religious and political authorities.

It is one thing to kill or harm one's enemies in a matter-of-fact way in combat or in what is usually perceived as self-defense, and something quite different to publicly rejoice in, celebrate and glorify such killings. It is the hallmark of a political culture drenched in self-righteous hate that it allows and encourages individuals to joyously display their bloody hands to television cameras and bystanders after they committed murder, as was the case last year when two Israeli soldiers were lynched on the West Bank. The same political culture sustains the behavior of people who dance on the streets when hearing about the indiscriminate mass murder of their supposed enemies, as was the case in several Arab cities after September 11. One can also readily associate this political culture with the attitude of parents who express great joy upon hearing of the "martyrdom" their children incurred in the course of blowing to bits innocent civilians.

Whatever the ingredients or sources of such hatred--material deprivation, lack of education, frustration, resentment, sense of inferiority, the scapegoating impulse -- it has become the dominant force fuelling political conflict and violence. Its "root cause" is not poverty but relative deprivation or frustrated expectations and the overpowering but comforting belief that others are responsible for one's misfortune. It is highly relevant here to recall that (as reported in a recent New York Times op-ed piece) opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza found "that better educated Palestinians were more likely than others to approve of violence."

There is certainly nothing banal or inauthentic about the violence of the suicide bombers enthusiastically killing themselves in the pursuit of their ideals. Religious beliefs and a climate of public opinion legitimate and nurture such hatreds, which in other cultures most people are embarrassed to display in public, let alone act on.

It is perhaps the authenticity of such violence and the belief that its perpetrators are the virtuous victims of the West (of the United States, and Israel) that impels the hardcore supporters of the adversary culture in this country to take a more charitable view of it and its perpetrators. Even if these warriors have not attracted as much open sympathy as the Vietcong used to, they benefit from the identity of their enemies in the eyes of the radical-left beholders whose better known representatives include Noam Chomsky, Terry Eagelton, Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Foner, Frederic Jameson, Norman Mailer, Katha Pollit, Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, among many others. They cannot help being drawn to virtually any group or individual passionately opposed to and willing to take militant action against the United States and Israel since they regard the United States "the great Satan" and the source of all evil and injustice in this world and Israel its ally and lackey.

In the wake of 9/11 these attitudes have taken several forms. One was the search for "root causes" which invariably led to the conclusion that the United States and Israel are in the final analysis responsible for the violence directed against them; if they are so bitterly hated there have to be good reasons for such hate. Another expression of the same attitude was the solicitousness shown toward those accused of or suspected of the terrorist violence against the U.S. and Israel. A great surge of concern about their civil and human rights and welfare swept through left-liberal circles that would be praiseworthy if such concern had also been shown for the corresponding rights and welfare of the victims of the various anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli guerillas and movements.

At numerous universities administrators have been anxious to protect the sensitivity of Arab students and adherents of Islamic beliefs by deeming offensive any expression of American patriotism including the display of the American flag; likewise campus critics of the U.S. war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere were assured a far more supportive environment than those supporting it.

Another symbolic gesture of support and solidarity was extended by Western "peace activists" who rushed to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and to the besieged terrorists in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem to keep them company and protect them by their presence.

There have also been many attempts to deny that Islamic religious beliefs could have inspired or legitimated the murderous political impulses and behavior of the suicide bombers. These attempts are reminiscent of the old dispute about the relationship between Marxism and the practices of communist states. The repressive nature of these states cannot be directly blamed on Marx and his theories but there was a connection, at the very least in the sense of entitlement to ruthlessness on behalf of great ideals to be realized. A paradise awaiting the suicide bomber is such an ideal or aspiration, and it is a religious notion not invented by the individuals in question who act on it. None of the other violent enemies of Western societies in recent times (the Weathermen, the Red Brigade in Italy, the Bader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the IRA in Ireland, the Basque terrorists etc) were suicidal. They did not have the kind of religious assurance and encouragement their Islamic counterparts possess at the present time.

The evil of Nazism was not banal, nor is the evil of Islamic suicide bombers. Whatever the social and political circumstances which contribute to their actions they do not provide moral license or the kind of "understanding" that shades into a mitigation of their behavior; these were individuals who, according to all indications, choose their actions freely, with utmost deliberation and under no compulsion other than the prodding of their beliefs and the enthusiastic support of their community.

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His books include Political Pilgrims, Anti-Americanism, Political Will and Personal Belief and most recently Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist (Transaction, 2002)

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