In 1960, Adolf Eichmann - a major engineer of the Holocaust - was caught while on the run in Argentina. He was brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961. The New Yorker commissoned Hannah Arendt, a jew, to report on the trial.
What follows is one of the most incisive looks into the psyche of totalitarianism, mass murderer, and evil. Watching Eichmann stand trial, Arendt notices:
"What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such."
Expanding on this notion, Arendt shows the reader that evil, more than anything else, is the worst kind of aimlessness, desperation, and imbecility known to humankind.
"Evil, as she saw it, need not be committed only by demonic monsters but—with disastrous effect—by morons and imbeciles as well, especially if, as we see in our own day, their deeds are sanctioned by religious authority."
She notices a certain banality about Eichmann, an ordinariness, that contrasted the levity of his crimes. Arendt concludes that the man on trial was not some great architect of evil, but largely an imbecile incapable of thinking for himself, echoing Ernest Becker who wrote in The Denial of Death:
...all through history it is the 'normal, average men' who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves."
Nacism and other totalitarians, rather than face their own deprivation, decide decide to lay wast to the world in order to forget themselves. In order, if you will, to avoid looking in the mirror, and to think.
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Eichmann's own comments prove that his actions were born out of a total devotion to the structure of meaning Nacism provided. Once it collapse, Eichmann found he'd have to live with himself, without orders and without routine.
“I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult—in brief, a life never known before lay before me.”
Despite being imprisoned, he was also for the first time free and utterly responsible for himself. It mortified him. Most of us desire nothing more than to be free from freedom - to give the reins of our lives to someone else, although this desire is largely unconscious.
Arendt shows how, even in the modern age, this stands true. The rise of terrorism is another knee-jerk reaction to the bewildering responsibility of freedom. Being good and being free at the same time demands a level of personal responsibility that some people cannot muster, and so become 'radicals' with a political movement or a religion. But there is nothing radical about them, as Arendt so pointedly explains.
"Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet—and this is its horror!—it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world."
In conclusion, Arendt paints Eichmann as he is - a man of no particular thought, not quite smart and not quite stupid. In other words, a man that might sit in the heart of any of us.
“The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,” the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial.”
Although Arendt's work has received much criticism as well as support over the years, a fundamental point remains - a 'normal', banal, everyday person of no particular thought, not quite smart and not quite stupid, might be worse than any architect of evil, like Hitler or Stalin. In other words, there may be a seed of Eichmann in every one of us.
"Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all… He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing… It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is 'banal' and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, this is still far from calling it commonplace… That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.”