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Tag: Banality of Evil

The Banality of Evil in America

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Guest Post by Larry

There are truly evil individuals in this world, people whose crimes cannot be explained as anything but the workings of an evil person. The mass shooter, the greedy financial criminal, and the sex abuser are just a few of the innumerable examples. However, these people and their acts tend to be visible and infrequent. Far less visible, but far more common, are the “ordinary” people who commit evil acts every day. Today we have a phrase for this: the “banality of evil.”

The phrase “banality of evil” was coined by philosopher Hanna Arendt. She was referring to the absolute indifference shown by Adolph Eichmann to the horror in which he was complicit when he organized the transport of tens of thousands of human beings to their deaths in the concentration camps. His only concern was being a good civil servant, getting ahead in the Nazi party, and pleasing his boss. Eichmann committed these acts of evil without the slightest thought or concern that he was doing something terrible. To him, it was just a civil service job and he was just following orders. To all outside appearances, he was an ordinary person, not a sadist or deranged monster and he did these horrible things with no apparent evil intention. The utter ordinariness of the man was astounding. This is the most frightening aspect of all. He seemed just like everyone else. And yet, he and thousands of other ordinary people committed these horrible acts without a second thought. Viewed in this context, the Banality of Evil may simply mean that evil occurs when ordinary individuals are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. Is this all it is? Probably not.

We then say “wait a minute. This happens everywhere, all the time.” We see the same banality of evil in America, not just in individuals but in the institutions that are supposed to take care of us. America is becoming an uncaring and brutal bureaucracy that is more intent on keeping the wheels of the “machine” running than the welfare of the people that are caught and crushed in its gears. For the sake of expediency and maintaining the status quo people are sacrificed. We see it everywhere we look.
The current immigration policy at the southern border is broken and has become a symbol of the horrors of a mindless and evil bureaucracy. This is a bureaucracy more concerned with upholding a policy intended to “deter” immigration than minimizing the pain and suffering that it inflicts on its victims. This is evil of the worst kind, the evil of utter uncaring and stunning indifference. This evil allows children to die in custody awaiting medical attention. This system allows children as young as one year old to be separated from their families and put in cages where they have to sleep on foam mats with only aluminum emergency blankets. This system allows hundreds of children to be “lost” in the system, unable to be located or reunited with their parents. And finally, yes, this is the immigration system that, today, allowed children to be held in vans for up to 36 hours waiting to be reunited with their parents. This is the system that allowed 900 people to be crammed into a space intended to hold 125 people in an El Paso detention center. This is clearly a concentration camp mentality in present-day America.

There are three justice systems in this country. One if you are White, one if you are Black, one if you are rich and powerful. Examples of the third are everywhere: Jeffery Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, and, of course, Donald Trump. All these men got more than just the benefit of the doubt from our legal system. With armies of lawyers, they got special deals and preferential treatment at every turn. These lawyers are adept at gaming the system so that nothing gets done and their client walks. The regular guy gets jailed. About 1,000 people are killed by police in America every year. A disproportionately large portion of them are Black. Rarely, if ever, are police held to account for these deaths. The George Floyd killers are the rare exceptions. Most of the time, they go uninvestigated by any independent third party. The word of the cop is taken as the gospel truth, and the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, qualified immunity, is used to get away with murder. Injustice is everywhere.

Religion is supposed to save our souls and enrich our lives by teaching us a better way of living. Religion has given us many good things. It has given us a moral code from which our laws are derived. It is also the source of a huge amount of pain and suffering. Our Puritan history has left us with a legacy of guilt and shame that is perpetuated to this day in so many ways. Organized religion is at the center of all of it. Catholic, Protestant, and to an extent, some Jewish sects, all fill our lives with rules and demands that are impossible to meet. When they are not met, we are labeled as shameful, lazy, lewd, evil, sinful, and we are punished. All the while the real evil of the people running the “house” goes unchecked. They sweep their excesses under the rug and play the “I am more virtuous than you” game. When caught, they sing the “forgive me, I am a sinner” song. So we do as they have taught us and forgive. And they go back to doing it again because they know that the system they run will protect them. They force religion down our throats and behind closed doors they commit the worst evils while quoting Scripture. It continues to boggle my mind how these people can see “demonic/satanic” evil under every bed, around every corner, but at the same time be totally blind to their own everyday evil. They are willfully blind to the evil of their actions, decisions, and beliefs and will justify horrendous things in the name of God, religion, and protecting the church. Thus, the church becomes the center of much human evil.

These examples are, sadly, only three among many. The conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which will fill our country with unwanted children that they will be the last to support and protect. They block any and all gun legislation, and in effect value guns before the lives of children. They endanger the future of the planet itself and all of us by denying climate change, all for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry that funds their elections. They are more interested in keeping their jobs than saving the planet.

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good that he seeks. – Mary Shelley

The most terrifying aspect of this is the fact that, once again, all of this is being implemented by ordinary people, not monsters. Evil need not exist only in evil individuals. No one wakes up in the morning and says “it’s a great day. I think that I’ll be extra evil today.” They are intelligent, educated, rational people with families and children of their own. You have to ask, “How does this happen? How can they do this?” They do this because they are part of a draconian system that, little by little, robs them of empathy, humanity, and capacity to feel. It robs them of the capacity to see their own evil. For the sake of conformity, the paycheck, and advancement, they repress and compartmentalize their basic goodness (whatever basic goodness they have left), normalize the atrocities, and become mindless bureaucrats. All compassion and sympathy are erased. They implement the worst horrors without apparent remorse or a second thought. Like Eichmann, they are civil servants just following orders. They are just doing their jobs. They are ordinary people committing atrocities in an evil broken system, doing horrible things in our name, not because it is patriotic or right, but because it is expedient and they are just following orders. Their worst crime is they are unthinking drones unable or unwilling to see their complicity in this evil, unthinking in that they are incapable of seeing past the superficial, seeing the true nature of their acts. Bestselling author, M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled), wrote a book on personal evil titled “People of the Lie” where he shows that one of the hallmark characteristics of these people is their inability to see their own evil. They have completely rationalized any awareness out of consciousness. They have become blind, deaf, and dumb to the consequences of their own actions. They have, in short, become blinded by their beliefs, by their ideology. This is the lie they tell themselves.

Very few monsters exist – “More dangerous are the common man, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions,” – Primo Levi

One must remember above all that evil can and does exist in normal individuals when they buy into and are captive to evil ideologies. Christian nationalism is one such ideology. Militant Islam is another. Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia are all evil beliefs bought into by ordinary people. As a cautionary note, we have to remember that the Holocaust was implemented by tens of thousands of ordinary Germans just “doing their job,” following the Fuhrer and being good Nazis. They believed they were right. They believed they were serving the greater good. False as it was, this was their ideology and they firmly believed it. This was their lie.

Americans are arrogant to think that we are somehow fundamentally different from or better than the Germans of the Nazi era. We are not. We are ordinary people just like they were. We are captives of our own “evil’ ideologies just as they were. Trickledown economics, Deep State conspiracies. Blacks are inferior. Jews control the world’s finances. America was founded as a Christian nation. Socialism is taking over America. All lies. All bought into by ordinary Americans.

The mob that stormed the Capital on January 6th was largely ordinary people who bought into the lie that the election was stolen and they were defending freedom in America. This was their belief, their ideology. It was a lie for sure, but a lie so deeply rooted that the truth was rendered irrelevant.

The consequences of this are catastrophic. We are a country of ordinary people spiraling down to some dark evil place, blinded by the lies we are told, and the ideologies being fed to us by our trusted messengers. The harm that we are inflicting on ourselves will last for generations. We are all ensnared by these lies, and at this moment, there is no way out of the trap. These lies are turning all of us into unthinking drones, trapped in partisan tribes, unwilling and unable to see the larger picture, unable to see our own evil. If anyone thinks that we are incapable of committing atrocities, they are wrong.

This is the “banality of evil” in America just as Hanna Arendt intended the phrase. This is what America really is.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser