The Banality of Evil Revisited: The Case of Drones


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color:black”>This oversight and its attendant confusion has been reflected in many public statements of the current administration, starting with President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech. “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism–it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” But Hitler and the leaders of Al Qaeda are not the same when it comes to evil-doing, a fact that becomes clear when we rethink the banality of evil. 

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>Arendt was a reporter for the  mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;
color:black”>Surprisingly, this was not the case.

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>Arendt writes that: “ padding:0in”>sui generis
desire to torture or kill. 

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color:black”>He was just doing his job.

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>And this is the truly gut-wrenching aspect of the Eichmann trial—that people  font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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color:black”>But here we come to see the difference between the evil of the Holocaust and that of Islamic extremism. Islamic extremism is, by definition, radical. There is nothing particularly banal about it. It requires significant sacrifices from individuals, who use violence or the threat of it to compel an otherwise unwilling group or community to accede to a set of demands.

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>These terroristic, or guerrilla, tactics, undertaken by enthusiastic volunteers, are employed both internationally and nationally. The attacks of September 11, 2001 can be seen as part of a global insurgency the strategic principles of which underpinned much of the subsequent insurgent action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The point here is that whatever one may think of the Islamic extremists’ ‘cause’—and what that is isn’t always clear—they more often than not make a radical decision to  

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color:black”>Eichmann’s case is very different from this.

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color:black”>The total dehumanization of the Jewish people by the National Socialist regime together with threats of retribution to deter any type of assistance to Jews, and the bureaucratization of their systematic extermination, created a unique set of self-reinforcing societal norms. It became extremely easy for individuals, such as Eichmann—for almost the entire German population—to acquiesce to the total marginalization, and attempted extermination, of the Jewish community; much easier in fact than opposing it.

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color:black”>In the end, Eichmann’s actions conformed to the normative and legal imperatives of his society. The radicalness of evil then, in contrast to banality, emerges in an obsessive, highly motivated minority, rather than from within a conditioned thoughtless majority (though this is not to say that Islamic extremists haven’t undergone conditioning or operate within their own distinct ‘society’, they obviously do; but most have made a decision to join that other society, having been previously immersed in one that prohibits the killing of an other, outside of state law).

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>The trial of Adolf Eichmann proffers an implicit warning to every liberal democratic society: beware the normalization of the extraordinary. The Nazis did not suddenly seize power and implement the ‘final solution,’ they did so slowly, incrementally. Yet each step towards dominance was a step towards such a state – the permanent ‘state of exception’, as 
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color:black”>We would prefer not to. 

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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>The practice of assassination has been outlawed since 1976, following the revelation that the CIA had attempted to kill various foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro, leading to President Ford issuing a 
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 it does away with the stubborn problem indefinite detention presents: what to do with alleged terrorists once they are captured? 

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color:black”>The debate surrounding individual rights in relation to the government continues, especially with regards to their respective domestic social and financial obligations, but there is a glaring lacuna when it comes to issues of human rights and national security. Under Bush much of the citizenry accepted indefinite detention and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (what others have decried as torture); under Obama, the practice of assassination—once officially banned—has, like that of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ not only been revived with little to no domestic opposition, but often enthusiastically supported. In Arendt’s words, drone strikes have become “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” 

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none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>John Kaag
padding:0in”>is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>Peter Aldinger none windowtext 0in;padding:0in”>just completed his time working for the American Bar Association in Liberia as the Liberian Legal Information Institute's program manager. Both received their M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge in 2006. 

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