Saturday, 21 April 2012

Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (1964)

The full title of this influential but controversial book is Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It had sat for many years on my 'to read' list. In short, it is a record of the 1960 trial and hanging of Adolf Eichmann, a fairly high-ranking bureaucrat within the political apparatus created in Nazi Germany to manage, and subsequently dispose of, Jews, Gypsies, and other 'undesireables'.

I must admit that for much of the book I could recognize why it was regarded as such an important philosophical and historical reference point. As an early, well-informed and thoughtful assessment of an upper-middle bureaucrat's responsibility within the Nazi extermination apparatus, it is certainly interesting. Of course, in the intervening fifty years or so since the work was published, there have been voluminous materials produced, drawing on more archival materials and interviews, and that give a much more detailed and comprehensive understanding of the historical and political dimensions of the Nazi Germany's racial and politically-motivated concentration, expulsion, and extermination policies.

Where Arendt's text remains particularly impressive and thought-provoking (if only, perhaps, for this author), is in the final chapter discussing the rendering of the court's decision regarding Eichmann's fate, his appeal, and the carrying out of his death sentence. Even more impressive is the 'Epilogue', which considers the legal precedents and ramifications for Israel's kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, and Arendt's summary and assessment of the legal arguments of the prosecution and defence. Once again, although many other texts have now been written about both aspects of this case, as an early, concise, and influential document, casual readers who have a good knowledge of Holocaust history could skip forward to these two chapters to gain a good sense of what Arendt was attempting to do.

As I read these final two chapters, I couldn't help but consider the United States' assassination of Osama bin Laden within the context of Arendt's discussion of the criminality of organized mass slaughter and the illegal kidnapping of someone to force them to face trial for their involvement of this crime.

Essentially (spoiler alert!), Arendt's argument might be summed up as resting on two pillars. Firstly, she suggests that Israel should have either had Eichman tried by an international court, or after trying him in their own court, turned him over for carrying out of the sentence to an international body.  Secondly, she suggests that what is essential to keep in mind - and that Eichmann's case provides an ideal example of - is that in the case of crimes against humanity we are far more likely to have to deal with 'banal evil'; rather ordinary people who do terrible things based on some flawed but functional rationalizations, than truly sick, cognizant, anti-social and "evil" people. In the case of Germany, the execution apparatus was populated by many, many people, sometimes even including those who were targeted by that machinery. Many of these people 'went along' with the criminal activities simply because the flow of history and morality seemed to be moving in that direction, and so they acquiesced, or believed what they were told was right. As the court commented regarding Eichmann, it was quite likely that in different circumstances he might not have ever been motivated to do what he had done.

In this regard, as Arendt decries Israel's kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, as well as their decision to single-handedly try and kill Eichmann, I find myself comparing these conclusions to the treatment of Osama bin Laden by the US. Of course, there are some critical differences: bin Laden did not represent or act in the name of a state, and bin Laden's acts were not therefore not the carrying out of a state's policies. Nonetheless, why the United States did not seek Pakistan's permission to seize bin Laden, and why they unilaterally decided to assassinate someone within another country's sovereign territory without respecting that country's sovereignty over their own space, and without the individual in question having recourse to trial, remains a deeply problematic and vexing aspect of this case. In the case of bin Laden it seems to me, in some respects similar to the case of Eichmann, the country's acting in the name of justice and vengeance (two very different to reconcile motivations) undermined the very foundation of the beliefs that they seemed to be so offended someone else did not respect.

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