The German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, first coined the expression ‘the banality of evil’ (Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963). She was sent to Jerusalem in 1961 by The New Yorker to cover the trial of the former Nazi, Adolf Eichmann for his role in the practical planning and management of the ‘final solution’.
Arendt concluded that Eichmann was no kind of grand, operatic or blood-spattered axe-fiend with bloodshot eyes. He had undertaken this work because he was ambitious, hard-working and essentially small-minded. When she called him ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ it was this – in some ways, innocuous – lack of imagination she was thinking about.
The problem was, of course, that in the circumstances in which he found himself, his inability to distance himself from his role, to engage with any sense of what we might call a conscience or perhaps even a consciousness of himself, proved lethal for millions.
In our reactions to Eichmann, there is always some fear that we might also be capable of doing what he has done; of being responsible for so much death and destruction or of having to bear that abysmal shame.
Arendt noted how hard it was for those involved in Eichmann’s trial: "it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that [he] was a monster". Much time and effort was spent trying to prove that he had actually killed someone himself. But Eichmann was not a monster and the evidence of individual murder was slight.
Here then are two instances of an impoverished imagination accompanied by deep anxiety. First, Eichmann, obviously lacked the imagination to comprehend or deal with the appalling consequences of his plans for countless individuals, families and communities. (He had, Arendt said, “a horrible gift of consoling himself with clichés”.) Second, we often lack the imagination to look steadily at evildoers and accept that though we might never do what Eichmann (or Levi Bellfield) did, we do not belong to a different species.
When it comes to evil we have a tendency to mystify it, that is reproduce unchallenging representations of it from the monster in the movie with unclean appetites for human flesh and blood, to the monstrous perverts of the tabloid press, who lurk in the darkness of our communities and prey on our children.
There is visceral satisfaction to be had as a result of these representations perhaps, and money continues to be made, however banal the narrative. But the problem is, this imaginative impoverishment contributes to the serious underlying problem: a potential to become, through lack of thought – particularly the inability to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes – alienated from both others and ourselves. We run the risk of becoming – like Eichmann – lost to any genuine sense of the demanding presence of others, of their unsettling claims on us or of their problematic existences as independent beings.
The French philosopher Julia Kristeva, dealing with the cinema and its representations of evil (Intimate Revolt, 2002) believes the visual medium in particular may not demand enough of us. She suggests it runs the risk simply of appeasing us on some level without making us do the vital work of interpretation; putting our emotional responses into forms of language that allow us to become conscious of them and of ourselves as their source. She has more confidence in the work of creating our own words in order to describe, and crucially to understand what we experience.
But whatever the relative merits of avant garde literature, popular film or the great works of our cultural traditions such as the Qur’an or the Geneva Convention, the bottom line is that this work of interpretation is central to our well-being as both individuals and communities. Certainly it contributes to our imaginative enrichment but more than this, it gives us the means to make sense of and deal with evil.
What does this have to do with Levi Bellfield, convicted murderer? There was nothing banal about the brutal way in which he murdered his victims, of course. But there are risks in simply relegating him to the realms of the banal – the monster whose existence is mysterious and beyond our comprehension.
We really do need to know why Bellfield became a killer and why a man who has a family, who attended a London comprehensive and became a relatively successful small businessman, felt he had the right to take the lives of three young women he scarcely knew and to wreak such havoc in the lives of their friends and families.
© Alison Jasper is Lecturer in Religion at the University of Stirling. Her work, background and publications history are summarised here.
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