Jun 13, 2013 - Issue 520

 BlackCommentator.com: ‘The Banality of Evil’: Conciliation in the Face of Terrorism - Represent Our Resistance - By Dr. Lenore J. Daniels, PhD - BC Editorial Board

...American self-evasion...is all that this country has as history...

- James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

When an event places the most extreme demands on us, one ought not to peak of banality.

-Jean Amery, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities


The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.

-William Faulkner


Of Jean Amery’s account of surviving Auschwitz, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by A Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, the late German writer W.G. Sebald offers this observation. He states that what set Amery’s work “above the activity surrounding it,” and by this Sebald means the effort of the post-Fascist German government to practice “usurping the victims’ cause” (On the Natural History of Destruction), was the way in which Amery tires “to break through the silence imposed on him by terrorism.”

Terrorism limited to a particular set of concentration camps, chambers of horrors, or prison cells. “The horrible can make no claim to singularity,” Amery writes (At the Mind’s Limits, 1966). One can survive the physical aspects of terrorism, if one survives at all. But terrorism is more than the physical application of violence.

There is a form of terrorism that, too, survives long after particular perpetrators are arrested and particular camps and chambers become defunct. Torture, terrorism, as an “institution and method,” writes Amery was supposedly eliminated in the eighteenth century, and yet, there are victims of torture alive today(his time and ours).

There it is again, years after the fall of fascism, in the photos Amery views, photos in which he sees South Vietnamese troops “torturing captured Vietcong rebels.” He recalls a letter writer Graham Greene sent to the Daily Telegraph in which Greene questioned the motivation for what appears to be government transparency: an admission that torture is still practiced.

The strange new features about the photographs of torture now appearing in the British and American press is that they have been taken with the approval of the torturers and are published over captions that contain no hint of condemnation. They might have come out of a book on insect life...Does this mean that the American authorities sanction torture as a means of         interrogation? The photographs certainly are a mark of honesty, a sign that the authorities do not shut their eyes to what is going on, but I wonder if this kind of honesty without conscience is really to be preferred to the old hypocrisy. (Greene, cited in At the Mind’s Limits)

Is this really transparency or yet another function of the apparatus of terrorism?

Everything a state that employs torture, terrorism presents for public consumption must be questioned as Greene did, Amery argues. Why now, while the terrorism is still practiced? What are we meant to see?

And Amery’s experience, his memory of terrorism, freed him to see in those photos the continuation of the lie surrounding terrorism, for, as he writes, in this admission of torture by the Americans and the British, “the boldness...of coming forward with such photos,” is possible and “explicable only if it is assumed that a revolt of public conscience is not longer to be feared.”

The photos, in other words, have a targeted audience and a specific tasks. The release of evidence, whether photos or documents, is part of a calculated, if not staged, performance constructed by any regime who simultaneously practices violence, torture, terrorism while also manipulating violence, torture, terrorism to deaden the public conscience so the American public, in particular, cannot see beyond what is shown.

What else is expected from a government committed to the use of violence?

As Amery writes, the fascist regime “hated the word ‘humanity.’” Its practitioners “tortured with the good conscience of depravity...they tortured because they were torturers. They placed torture in their service. But even more fervently they were its servants.”

Torture was not “an accidental quality” of the Third Reich, but its “essence.” How does an individual or a community of people engage in conciliation with the essence of terrorism? Is conciliation another name for evasion?


I am Adolph Hitler, and as Fuehrer, head of state, on behalf of the German citizens, and for the purposes of national security, declare Jewish, communists, members of the gay and lesbian communities, dissents, Germans in liaisons with the above, enemies of the State, and I have ordered my army and domestic security forces to round up - anywhere - such people, to confiscate their newspapers, to gather their correspondence and financial records, and I encourage all Aryan German citizens to corporate and actively support the efforts of their government.

How could Amery, as Sebald notes, offer a “conciliatory” discussion on the German Reich’s pogrom of “persecution and extermination of a largely assimilated minority?” How can one speak of conciliation and healing when trust in the legal and social contracts, in one’s fellow human being, no longer exist?

Before you receive the first blow from a Gestapo guard, writes Amery, you realize you had come to expect, to trust in those “written or unwritten social contracts” about freedom and human rights. The other would acknowledge such contracts, yes? The other would spare you, would respect “your physical” as well as your “metaphysical being.” But “at the first blow this trust in the world breaks down” (At the Mind’s Limits).

You realize you have been lied to - and any expectation of help is not forthcoming. And “if no help can be expected, this physical overwhelming by the other then becomes an existential consummation of destruction altogether.” The “minimal prospect of resistance” looks hopeless. Only when you think from the perspective of terrorists and accept talk about “the banality of evil” do you accept terrorism as some vague, abstract development that appears without an historical antecedent, here or there and is, as if magically, wiped away by an army of soldiers. No residue.

There is a residue of terrorism for its targeted victims, and not all of it is represented by physical scars. “Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world...That one’s fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror...It is fear that henceforth reigns over him.”

For this reason, Amery declares - one ought not talk about “the banality of evil.”

Terrorism is the concrete manifestation of “evil.” It has a face, plenty of faces, and not only of fear exhibited in its victims. Its destructive powers are not easily remedied by governmental announcements of an end to hostilities. Mission accomplished.

Look to “the other” - the Gestapo, Amery writes. Look at their costumes, to the arrogant posture.

Amery remembers: These were the “men in leather coats,” with pistols “pointed at their victim.” Not monsters or extraterrestrial beings but men (and women) who were also not “‘Gestapo faces’ with twisted noses, hypertrophied chins, pockmarks, and knife scars, as might appear in a book.” The Gestapo looked like anyone else. “Plain, ordinary faces” - like anyone else - “became Gestapo faces.”

These plain and ordinary faces, “with heart and soul,” “went about their business,” and “the name of it was power, dominion over spirit and flesh, orgy of unchecked self-expansion.”

“The banality of evil” is the terrorism and the lie, the cover-up narrative about bad apples. Innocent dupes!

“Evil overlays and exceeds banality,” writes Amery, “for there is no ‘banality of evil,’ and Hannah Arendt, who wrote about it in her Eichmann book, Amery continues, knew the enemy of mankind only from hearsay, saw him only through the glass cage.”


Captured in Argentina (1960) to stand trial in Jerusalem, Adolph Eichmann presented himself to the world as an ordinary worker for the government - the National Socialist government, under Adolph Hitler. Eichmann pled not guilty.

Born in Germany, Hannah Arendt was a political theorist and, as a Jew, she was subject to Gestapo interrogation before becoming a naturalized citizen of the U.S. In 1961, The New Yorker hired Arendt to cover the trial of the man she saw through a glass cage and offers the thesis, “the banality of evil.” As Fred Kaplan states, this thesis “rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism (“The Woman Who Saw Banality of Evil,” New York Times, May 24, 2013).

A series of articles culminates in a book-length report titled, A Report On The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem in which it could be argued Eichmann speaks. He was simply a bored young man. “Bored to distraction.”

Arendt’s Eichmann “had been an ambitious young man who was fed up with his job as traveling salesman even before the Vacuum Oil Company was fed up with him.” He saw himself as a failure to his social class and to his family. He could make a career yet. So when he discovered that the Security Service of the Reichsfuhrer S.S. (Himmler’s Sicherheitsdienst, or S.D)....had jobs open, [he] applied immediately.”

Despite the orders to carry out the Final Solution, Eichmann stayed focused on the “emigration” not the liquidation of Jews.

On the contrary, Eichmann joined the S.S., becoming a member of the “higher ups,” becoming privy to Hitler’s “intentions” for the Jewish populations in Germany and Europe at large, even though he denied his importance in the Nazi Party, and insisted he had “never been told more than he needed to know in order to do a specific, limited job” (“The Woman Who Saw Banality of Evil”).

From behind this glass cage, Eichmann, for a time, played his role as a simple worker following orders quite well. His performance must have been mesmerizing: there he sat, Adolph Eichmann of the submissive, countless foot soldiers, “a clown,” Arendt writes, (“The Woman Who Saw Banality of Evil”), forced to bow before the powerful. But, there must have been, too, the Adolph Eichmann of the Schutzstaffel, a former member of the powerful fascist regime - all behind him now.

Eichmann’s “superiors” were bad, but he did not know it!

Distinctions of this sort thrive, as Amery understood, when the observer fails to remember.

Arendt’s Eichmann was simply a confused young man: Why not join the S.S.? And he replied, Why not? That was how it had happened, and that was about all there was to it” (my emphasis, A Report on the Banality of Evil).

But this was not all there was to it.

We know now that Arendt left the trial before the real Eichmann appeared!

When Eichmann (and the operation of terrorism) was most transparent, Arendt was not there. When she was there, looking at Eichmann through his glass cage, she could not see. Captured! Enslaved! Silenced!

The magnetism of deception!

Evidence has been “unearthed” since the trial and certainly during to indicated that “Eichmann very much knew what he was doing” (“The Woman Who Saw Banality of Evil”). In fact, the historical Eichmann (as opposed to Arendt’s) was a man “who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his murderous ‘achievements,’” according to S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher in “Questioning the Banality of Evil,” http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk, January 2008). He “identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology.” He did not simply “follow orders,” but, in fact, “pioneered creative new policies.”

Recent studies now reveal that Arendt was at best, “naive.”

The studies Haslam and Reicher refer to in the article mentioned above challenge to the theory held by psychologists as well as historians that individuals, as one study suggested, in an “agentic state” “suspend their capacity to make informed moral judgments and relinquish responsibility for what they do to those in authority” (Milgram in “Questioning”). We have become accustomed to believing that individuals “conform blindly to what is expected,” that the most “thoughtful and humane individual will become a brutal zombie if put in the wrong sort of group.”

Historically and fortunately, this is not always the case. There are countless known and unknown white Americans who took risks to help Blacks escape enslavement, for example. Many Europeans, including Aryan Germans, risked encampment or death, to save Jewish from extermination. And, today, we have only to note someone like Pvt. Bradley Manning, risking his freedom because he released to Wikileaks selective information about the brutality of our current wars, including a video tape of American military personnel firing on journalists, Good Samaritans and children from their high-tech helicopters. It should not escape our attention that it is someone like Pvt. Manning, captured, imprisoned and tortured, sitting before the law, on trial for believing, contrary to an ideology that enforces tyranny, in principles and practices of inclusion rather than exclusion.

Manning could have taken a different course of action; he could have moved up the ranks becoming a career officer; he could have become an American hero with coveted medals dangling from his lapel. But that would not be Pvt. Manning. Some others, but not Manning. Evasion is not an option. Manning, too, broke through “the silence imposed on him by terrorism.”

Haslam and Reicher:

As Ian Kershaw notes, Nazi didn’t obey Hitler, they worked towards him, seeking to surpass each other in their efforts. By the same token, they also had a large degree of discretion. Indeed, as Laurence Rees (2005) notes in his recent book on Auschwitz and the ‘final solution’, it was this that made the Nazi system so dynamic. Even in the most brutal of circumstances, people did not have to kill and only some choose to do so. So, far from simply ‘finding themselves’ in inhumane situations or inhumane groups, the murderers actively committed themselves to such groups. They actively created inhumane situations and placed themselves at their epicentre.

“They actively created inhumane situations and placed themselves at their epicentre.”

Far from blindly conforming and “following orders,” men (and women) such as Eichmann came to their tasks already influenced by an ideology whose essence is the practice of torture/terrorism. As Haslam and Reicher write, these studies suggests “that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology. This leads them to advance that ideology knowingly, creatively and even proudly.”

Before a Hitler or an Eichmann, secret and not so secret societies, fashionable social clubs, with charismatic leaders such as Guido von List and Georg Schonerer, for example, galvanized like-minded people with the “dogma about the ‘German people’s’ alleged natural superiority to all other peoples” (Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship).

Eichmann: “‘I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals” (“The Woman Who Saw Banality of Evil”).

Eichmann did not resist fascist policies nor did he ever consider turning whistleblower. Instead, he tapped into the Germany-to-Argentina-pipeline for terrorists fleeing accountability. He fled Argentina while behind glass cage. Eichmann knew he was an embodiment of terrorism and he knew why. He offered the narrative of banality, expressing no remorse.

“There was less and less talk of remorse,” as Amery recalls, following the collapse of the Nazi regime. “The pariah Germany was accepted into the community of nations.” Then “it was courted,” until “finally it had to be dispassionately reckoned with in the power game” (At the Mind’s Limits).

Amery would agree with Faulkner: “maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished.” Terrorism has become a popular tool for the imperialist agenda among corporate/capitalists.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.