Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Banality of Evil



Tahrir Square July 3, 2013 (Getty Images)
Events in Cairo this past week have demonstrated the Egyptian people’s democratic impulses even if they may not have the laws and procedures in place to deal with a leader they no longer support or want.  The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, could not give the people credit for their intelligence and grievances.  No, they chose to blame the protests against Mohammed Morsi on America and Israel.  The Egyptian military decided that the best way to handle the situation was to remove President Morsi from office, swear in an interim President, and then hold elections as soon as possible.  What I found hopeful about the Egyptian situation were the people’s refusal to not do anything (even those who support the Muslim Brotherhood who also held their own protests) and the military’s restraint in their actions.  It could have been much different.

In the middle of all this, I went to the movies with a small group of friends.  We saw Hannah Arendt, the 2012 German film directed by Margarethe von Trotta that focuses on the period in the political theorist’s life when she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, and the controversy her series of articles caused.  It was at this time, in her articles, that she described Eichmann as an example of the banality of evil.  She found him unexceptional, an ordinary human being, a “nobody,” as she called him, who was evil because he blindly followed orders.  He didn’t think about the consequences of those orders, but focused on what he needed to do to follow them.  He headed the Gestapo agency that handled the logistics of transporting Jews to concentration camps.  His defense during his trial was that he simply followed Adolf Hitler’s orders, therefore, he was not guilty of the deaths of all the Jews he insured arrived at the camps.  Arendt was shocked by what she called his “thoughtlessness,” his failure to think about the orders given him and what those orders meant.  He was a bureaucrat who claimed to have no opinion or feelings against or for the Jews. 

He was not alone, of course, in his “just following orders.”  But how does this relate to the events in Egypt this past week?

The Egyptian people failed to blindly follow their President.  They have watched their President’s performance over the last year and the majority has deemed him a failure.  The Egyptian military chose to support the majority which I believe took a great deal of thought and weighing of options on the part of the military leaders.  All these people, ordinary citizens and the military, thought about their government and then they acted of their own free will.  Neither America nor Israel had anything to do with it.  They refused to blindly follow the Muslim Brotherhood and its policies.

I worry about any belief system – religious, political, scientific or social – that does not tolerate challenge, doubt, questioning, or change.  Leaders who require blind obedience and strict adherence to a belief system present a threat to human thought, imagination, creativity, and conscience.  Adolf Hitler was just such a leader.  He has a lot of company in human history.  What I wonder now is: was Mohammed Morsi such a leader?  Is the Muslim Brotherhood such an organization like the Taliban, for example?  I think that’s for the Egyptians to answer for themselves.  They may have dodged the beginning of a government that might eventually have denied democracy in Egypt.  The people chose to act on their thoughts and consciences, unlike Adolf Eichmann who chose to just follow orders.


For anyone interested in reading more about Hannah Arendt and her writings, her Wikipedia page is a good place to start.  Adolf Eichmann also has a Wikipedia page, as does the Muslim Brotherhood.     

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