The New Yorker has an excellent article entitled “Beware of Pity” about Hannah Arendt, the brilliant historian and politcal scholar who coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe what she witnessed at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the infamous architect of the holocaust. She said of Eichmann, and by extension of all the Nazi functionaries, “(he) does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” This radical compartmentalization of the public and private self to justify horrendous acts is, she said, “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
The entire article is worth reading, if you’re inclined to learn more about Arendt and her influence, but I want to paste in the first section below because it’s such a salient example of the banality of evil. Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulić visited The Hague in 1999 to observe trials for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Her discovery is described in this excerpt:
Among the defendants was Goran Jelisić, a thirty-year-old Serb from Bosnia, who struck her as “a man you can trust.” With his “clear, serene face, lively eyes, and big reassuring grin,” he reminded Drakulić of one of her daughter’s friends. Many of the witnesses at The Hague shared this view of the defendant—even many Muslims, who told the court how Jelisić helped an old Muslim neighbor repair her windows after they were shattered by a bomb, or how he helped another Muslim friend escape Bosnia with his family.
But the Bosnian Muslims who had known Jelisić seven years earlier, when he was a guard at the Luka prison camp, had different stories to tell. Over a period of eighteen days in 1992, they testified, Jelisić himself killed more than a hundred prisoners. As Drakulić writes, he chose his victims at random, by asking “a man to kneel down and place his head over a metal drainage grating. Then he would execute him with two bullets in the back of the head from his pistol, which was equipped with a silencer.” He liked to introduce himself with the words “Hitler was the first Adolf, I am the second.” He was sentenced to forty years in prison.
None of Drakulić’s experience in creating fictional characters could help her understand such a mind, which remained all the more unfathomable because of Jelisić’s apparent normality, even gentleness. “The more you realize that war criminals might be ordinary people, the more afraid you become,” she wrote.
For more on this topic, you may be interested to read my interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect. Dr. Zimbardo’s position regarding evil acts is similar to Arendt’s, and he has been a pioneer in this field of psychological research for the last four decades.