Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Banal Face of Evil

Why do monsters look so ordinary? So the Economist asked about General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb who ordered the killing of 80,000 Bosnian men and boys.

I suppose we have seen too many file pictures in the media of criminals with obvious looks of malevolence we forget how ordinary many more appear. Is it possible that the more horrific the crime, the more ordinary the look? Take Dennis Rader for instance. Who could have suspected that the cub-scout leader and Lutheran church council president was also the infamous serial killer, the BTK (Blind, Torture, Kill) Strangler?

It was Hannah Arendt who first used the phrase 'the banality of evil' when she wrote on the 1961 trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem), Hitler’s logistical engineer and chief executioner of the Final Solution . On seeing Eichmann behind the bulletproof glass booth calmly giving testimony, she said, "the man in the glass booth, was — nicht einmal unheimlich — not even sinister." She added, "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous." You may remember that Eichmann’s defense was that he was merely "following orders."

Tom’s TrueTalk Blog has a post on Leeds-born Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, one of four suicide bombers behind London’s 7/7 carnage. Tom concluded: "It’s important that we recognize that acts like this are often carried out by fellow human beings who resemble each of us in more ways that we may be comfortable with."

"Comfortable with"? Our constant rationalizing away of sin and evil (genetic? social?) are attempts to mask the fact that we alone are responsible for the choices we make, and that ordinary people (like ourselves) do terrible things all the time, whether we like to admit it or not. That’s what the Bible means when it says that the heart is deceitful above all things.

Our sins may not be similar or comparable; stealing someone’s iPod may not be the same as taking someone’s life. But on any given day, in different measures, we are all equally culpable of moral compromise large and small.

A peculiar quality of the Christian mind is that, knowing the weakness of human nature, it expects conflict in the moral sphere. It assumes that the powers of evil will exploit every possible occasion for drawing men into the mental confusion of blurred concepts and twisted values. There is about the Christian mind a peculiar hardness – a refusal to be surprised at evil and depravity; an inability to be overcome by shock; an expectation that evil will be at large where God is not.

Harry Blamires
The Christian Mind

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