Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Back to the "banality of evil": reflections on "Charlie Hebdo"

By Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
January 29, 2015

When Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963 and focused on the issue of the "banality of evil" based on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, many intellectuals and readers found her reflection meaningless. Long before the publication of the book, even when her writings were just newspaper articles published in The New Yorker, they generated a lot of debate and controversy. Some thought that speaking of the "banality of evil" was disrespectful in light of the crime of extermination of so many Jews. Eichmann, in fact, was a banal man who fulfilled his duties such an extent that he didn't hesitate to fulfill them in the extermination camp, obeying orders. At the time the readers didn't understand Hannah and today, we are still equally ignorant about the expression "the banality of evil" and current events. What she wished to reaffirm is that doing evil is the responsibility of human beings and that there is no higher power or diabolical nature that forces us to kill, rob, appropriate what doesn't belong to us, or deem ourselves superior to one another.

The banality of evil is actions that destroy the life we live and observe on the visible surface of history. It is manifest through a chain of relationships and decisions, micro-powers that end up becoming macro-powers and forces of annihilation. The banality of evil is alienation in the face of fundamentalist orders, be they right-wing, centrist, or left-wing. The banality of evil is our daily lives full of hatred against things small and large.

Today, following to the extent possible the incidents surrounding the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the multiple demonstrations around the massacre perpetrated there, some thoughts inspired by Hannah Arendt come to my mind.

Not only is it necessary to reaffirm the "banality of evil" but also affirm that certain uses of defense against evil are also evil. Freeing oneself from evil through evil means, freeing oneself from dogmatic religious intransigence through humorous or political intransigence, freeing oneself from blame by affirming the right of freedom of the press, continuing to develop prejudices about those who are "different" puts us again in the dualism of the innocent and the guilty. And thus, we are again at a dead-end, always accusing each other, always looking for enemies and seemingly giving a hand to those who appear to be champions of democracy.

The "eye for an eye" which we are experiencing today means the restoration of the law of barbarism; it signifies a collective regression in the quality of our humanity. We know well that although there are different levels of responsibility and complicity, there are no longer those who are purely innocent or guilty. We are immersed in the trivialization of evil by the media and in the banalizing of violence. In other words, the press that reaches the general public runs on, and persuades, based on dualisms -- good and evil, guilty and innocent, good citizens and bad or delinquent citizens, and so on. You already know beforehand who will be condemned. The day's news report leads us to the good and the wicked and incites the will to administer justice with our own hands. We don't need to think or ask ourselves questions, nor do we cast suspicion on the truth of the reports. Thus the immediate apparent evil, which points to the guilty one(s) and accuses them of being terrorists, criminals, and traitors to the homeland, is accentuated.

There isn't a critical analysis. No broader history is presented to be considered. There is no collective responsibility to be taken on and weighed. Hannah Arendt explained that banalizing evil was more than considering evil as part of human essence, something that could be explained based on the character of human beings or a perverse and corrupt nature. Hannah said that evil was something committed on the surface of deeds through mechanisms of relationships that we impose on one another. It is the evil of arbitrariness before which everyone makes their own laws according to their interests and commits atrocities and crimes because of them with huge historical consequences, proximate as well as remote.

It is the evil of blind obedience where the excuse that innocently states "I did it because they commanded me to" rules. The will of the actor becomes subordinate to the will of others, accepting the orders of a nameless machine capable of exterminating many names. Totalitarian regimes disguised as democracies seem to be the most dangerous in our time. They create webs of complicity that don't appear clearly, without explaining the reasons for their proposals and actions, without accounting for their initiatives and ends. Clearly they are saying something with this chosen silence. For example, they say they are defending democracy. But what democracy? They preach rights, but whose rights? They talk about liberty, fraternity, and equality. But what do these consist of? To whom do they apply and how do we experience them today?

All this is very vast, like the "vast world" of Fernando Pessoa. So I want to think about the little [specific] things. I am thinking about the wives, the mothers, the sons and daughters, and the tense relationships between the different countries as a result of the actions of those who carried our the assassinations in Paris.

I am thinking of the growing prejudice and hidden aggression that some maintain against others. But, ultimately, who killed whom? How many victims are there? Surely there were more deaths and injuries than those recorded by newspapers and "intelligence" systems. There were many people involved in the games of power and counter-power, not only the day of the tragedy, but much earlier. However, this is beyond the emotion of the moment, the noise of bombs the commercial press needs.

For close friends, for families, expressions such as "defending the freedom of the press" mean nothing when the body of the beloved is motionless, when the child of my loins has been assassinated, when the word "papa" will not be uttered while looking at him by the sons and daughters who are left behind. This pain is often forgotten or remembered only when it can have an "effect" of media sensationalism. But for those who remain and have lost the ties of friendship, parentage, affection and understanding, there are no clear labels that express the aching void that overwhelms them. And we know that this ache will be the primordial pain in the heart of the world.

The "extermination camps" of the Second World War still cause chills in many of us and they still inspire written pages and films in many people. However, the present day suffering born of an old, prolonged spiral of violence, the loss of loved ones, epidemic hunger, daily violence, before being transformed into past history, is immeasurable. We are not aware of its intensity and variety. It lacerates so much and perhaps much more than the bullet that ends lives. It opens wounds whose quickly flowing blood is hard to stop, leaving indelible marks on those whose present history is marked by the killing of one another, by mass flight, by the scourge of fear on many faces. Both the one who is regarded as the assailant and the assaulted one have their worlds of close relationships and the latter are violently transformed.

The many "pieces of me" that go "beyond good and evil," that can't be influenced or debated, that don't listen to or obey any calling, any supplication of love, any passion, any higher order, remain in the ineffable memory of their neighbors. Yesterday's grief reawakens and prolongs today's suffering, anonymous unimportant suffering, perhaps even without political consequences for the intensification of wars. Suffering that can even be the detonator for new battles, reoccurring vendettas in the archives of history.

I remember an American mother who lost her only son fighting in the war against Iraq. She rejected the honors they wanted to grant him. She didn't want awards for her grief, she did not accept the trivialization of her suffering, she didn't want to be rewarded for the loss without return, she didn't demand useless apologies. There is much more pain than we imagine and much more dignity than we reckon. But it's hard to understand why we aren't able to change "swords into plowshares," why we need to kill each other to maintain the stability of the world economy, and why we aren't able to move beyond the limits of nation states and religions.

The traps of barbarism seem to grow, causing distortions, concealing facts, feelings, emotions. Vengeance small and large is the most common currency of exchange. You offended my people, spoke ill of my father, stole my car, burned my house, criticized my religion ... So I'm killing you, you wretches! Banality of evil, banality of good.

What would good really be? The traps that are set for us to act impulsively and superficially appear to be the raw material of many news items. They generate the "first fruits" -- the orientation of the reporting, the hunt for bandits, the exciting confrontation of danger, exposure to the shots of illegal bands, legal and illegal police ... All appear like groups of boys playing the good guys, fighting bandits, carrying lethal weapons. Boom, boom, boom, boom ...

Mother help me, Mother, Mother, Mommy...Where are you, Mom? The cry for the mother accompanies the last breath of the son who has gone. One more has died ... the one who has been left lying on the floor is "my son" shouts a woman ... And the one who killed him and was later eliminated by the police is "mine" shouts another. All dead, stupidly dead, general slaughter. The news made the front page and the newspaper today raised its sales.

We get out of the red because the blood of marginal criminals puts the monthly accounts in the black. The hearts of the women, grieving because they are mothers, remain red from the blood. The screams calling out for help still echo in their ears. Despite the silence of the dead, they are there like an echo near the eardrum, like a pain in the gut, like tears inside that can't be held back. But that's nothing, some say, soon it will pass ... The world will not change because we are still wolves towards one another.

Today, the reliable strength of the government to which power is delegated, no longer works. Every group and even, sometimes, every citizen feels they have the right to intervene in the public order according to their instincts. There is a travesty of good and a pretense that together we are seeking justice, a semblance of order established by weapons and guaranteed by hidden missiles. The production of weapons of war remains our trade, our profit and our defense! Blessed war that helps us sell so much! ...

We no longer want to be disciples of solidarity, or justice and peace, even recognizing its fragility. We don't want to look for love and respect for neighbor as the administrator of our relationships. We have lost the foundation of common good amid so much arbitrariness and corruption.

I think I feel a bit lost...I have to light a lamp in full daylight. Perhaps old age has made me more limited and disbelieving. I no longer see clearly where the path of human dialogue, caring for one another, bread shared, cirandas (rhyming songs danced in a circle that encourage us towards good practices), respect for differences, is going.

I'm tired of the hypocrisy of politics and those who dare to speak in the name of their god. We are spellbound by the cheap happiness of consumerism, by the irrationality of many faiths, by the order and disorder of the hegemonic media, by the black gold, yellow gold and white gold that run the world. And yet, despite all this ... Imagine this. Today, I bought ice cream for a street kid who asked me smiling, "Lady, will you buy some chocolate ice cream for me?"

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