This year is the 50th Anniversary of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. The anniversary has led to a number of museum exhibitions, but also to a reexamination of Hannah Arendt’s famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem – the book in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.”
Arendt was of course recently the subject of a major feature film, and with the release of the film there was an essay in the New York Times by Roger Berkowitz. I have to say I found Berkowitz’s essay hard to buy: His claim was that Eichmann was banal in that he was a “true believer” – and sorry but I don’t see how there is anything banal about a true believer. Then again, I'm no expert (more on this below).
My interest in this topic stems from the fact that I recently used Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil to frame a NYT Stone article about whistleblowers. In it I argued that whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are exceptional because they rejected their bureaucratic responsibilities when they saw they were participating in systemic evil – they were acting as Eichmann (and many others) did not and to this day do not.
Meanwhile in an response published on the website of the Hannah Arendt Center, Berkowitz argued that Arendt would have taken exception to Snowden because he did not, as it were, face the music after he blew the whistle. To illustrate, Berkowitz draws on the following example discussed by Arendt (I quote at length).
For Arendt, great civil disobedients from Socrates to Thoreau play important and essential roles in the political realm. What is more, Arendt fully defends Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. It seems, therefore, that it is appropriate to enlist her in support of the modern day whistleblowers.
There is, however, a problem with this reading. Socrates, Thoreau, and Ellsberg all gave themselves up to the law and allowed themselves to be judged by and within the legal system. In this regard, they differ markedly from Snowden, Manning and others who have sought to remain anonymous or to flee legal judgment. For Arendt, this difference is meaningful.
Consider the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, which Arendt addresses in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Schwartzbard was a Jew who assassinated the leader of Ukranian pogroms in the streets of Paris. Schwartzbard stood where he took his revenge, waited for the police, admitted his act of revenge, and put himself on trial. He claimed to have acted justly at a time when the legal system was refusing to do justice. And a French jury acquitted him.
For Arendt, the Schwartzbard case stands for an essential principle of justice: that to break the law and act justly, one must then bring oneself back into the law. She writes:
He who takes the law into his own hands will render a service to justice only if he is willing to transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can, at least posthumously, be validated.
Now I’m certainly no expert on Arendt (I won’t even claim I’m competent on Arendt), so I wonder if I might crowdsource this topic. What exactly did Arendt mean by “the banality of evil,” and is it really the case that she would say a whistleblower should simply turn herself in after the deed? Really? But as I say; I don’t know. I’m asking.
Comments are are moderated. Signed comments are preferred. I'll see if Roger Berkowitz can join us.