“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”
― Jonas Salk (1914 – 1995)
Developed the inactivated polio vaccine in 1955
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)“
Mercy mercy me
Things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Oh mercy, mercy me
Things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
My sweet Lord… No
~ Marvin Gaye
From the album: What’s Going On (1971)
This essay is written in six segments:
(1) The evidence for destruction of environment and extermination of species due to human activity;
(2) the Holocaust and the trials for justice such as Nuremberg and Eichmann trials;
(3) Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann Trial and the notion of banality of evil;
(4) Bureaucratic consumerism of today and its impact on the environment; and
(5) Relating Arendt’s concept of “banality of evil” to human activities that are destroying the environment – Can the animals, plants, oceans set up their tribunal and conduct a trial to bring these Everyman Eichmanns of today to justice?
(6) Can thoughtfulness help?
Segment 1: Mercy Mercy Me – Destruction of the environment everywhere from the air to land to the sea: the evidence
Ecosystems and species that have evolved over millions of years are disappearing faster than at any time in human history. And they can never be brought back.
Humans and their activities are driving animals and plants to extinction faster than new species can evolve, warns Simon Stuart, one of the world’s experts on biodiversity and chair of the Species Survival Commission for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in an article in The Guardian.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for identifying those living organisms threatened with extinction and evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species, recently reported 42,537 extinction threats in different geographical regions, which included 28,807 animal species and 13,766 plant species. With approximately 1.75 million known species, and many millions yet to be discovered, the IUCN Red List is said to merely scratch the surface in extinction risk assessments.
The Living Planet Index Report of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, 2014), a comprehensive study of animal populations to date, found that roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population have been killed since 1970; that is, Planet Earth has lost half of its large wildlife in the past 40 years. From forest elephants in central Africa, where poaching rates now exceed birth rates, to the Hoolock gibbon in Bangladesh or dolphins in China, destruction of habitat has seen populations of various animal species decline drastically. Until recently many had been hoped that the rate of evolution of new species could perhaps match the rate of loss of diversity of life. But it seems that is not the case anymore. Humans are killing off species thousands of times faster than nature creates them.
According to a study published in Conservation Biology journal the current extinction rates across species are 100 to 1000 times more than the background rate or natural rate, which is determined by fossils; and which existed before human activity started to tamper with the ecosystem. Conservation experts, including previous research published in the journal Science, find the world heading towards a period of mass extinction —the “sixth great extinction.” The previous mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs, happened about 65 million years ago, most likely due to a catastrophic asteroid that collided with Earth. In contrast, the looming sixth mass extinction is completely attributable to the activities of one species: humans.
Our “way of life” is a “pathway of death” for other species
Humans are the single largest contributor to the extinction of all other species on the planet. This irreparable damage to the variety of species of flora and fauna is a consequence of the way humans choose to live. From destruction of natural habitats, deforestation to climate change, hunting and fishing, pollution to wildlife consumption, humans are driving massive changes to the world’s biodiversity and ecosystem.
Simply put, our “way of life” has become a “pathway of death” for other plants and animals on this planet. Human beings just cannot co-exist or live in balance with the ecosystem – whether it is our everyday life with use of plastics that is damaging the oceanic environment, or need for more energy that is leading to mining or destruction of forests such as the Amazon, or hunting and fishing for food that is destroying the tuna, or the creation of dams, riverine waterways, industrial and residential waste or agricultural pesticide run-off that is destroying freshwater life such as river dolphins, or the creation of concrete jungles and use of wireless devices that is killing off sparrows.
Take the case of plastic use by humans and pollution of the oceans. Plastic is an integral part of the everyday lives of everyman – from wrappers to bags, to packing materials, to cups and glasses, to syringes and helmets. The question is: How do we dispose of this plastic once we unwrap our precious gift? The ocean becomes our communal trash can – as 80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic.
The same plastics, an integral part of the way of life of today’s humans as they go about making Everyman’s daily life convenient, become poison when they reach the ocean waters, a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. As one report says: “To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. And plastic pellets–the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made–look like fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.” At least 267 different species, including seabirds, sea turtles, seals, whales, sea lions, and fish have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation.. Scientists are investigating the long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential effects on the food chain and on human health. Plastics often have toxins like PCBs and other pollutants on them, which fish and other marine organisms consume when they nibble on small size plastics; the fish absorb these toxins and pass them along to other predators when they eat these fish. “Plastics are like a cocktail of contaminants floating around in the aquatic habitat,” said Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “These contaminants may be magnifying up the food chain.”
A study published in the journal PLOS One in 2014 estimated that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, large and small, weighing 269,000 ton, are dispersed throughout the world’s oceans. The reputed journal Science published (in 2015) the findings of a study of the coastlines of 192 countries: each year an average of eight million tons of plastic is moved from land to ocean. This is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic in every foot of coastline in these countries; and the amount could rise 10-fold in the next decade. The researchers found that waste that slips past mis-managed waste management systems — including poor management practices, open dumping, and litter — is the biggest source of plastic debris in the oceans. The study found coastal countries generated close to 275 million tons of plastic waste in 2010, and that 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of that plastic made its way to the oceans; and the top 20 countries accounted for 83% of the plastic waste that could enter the ocean.
Endangered freshwater and marine animals
The fastest decline among the animal populations is found in freshwater ecosystems, where numbers have plummeted by 75% since 1970. “Rivers are the bottom of the system,” according to Dave Tickner, WWF’s chief freshwater adviser, “whatever happens on the land, it all ends up in the rivers.”
The overuse use of freshwater rivers for fishing, dams and navigation projects along with pollution and habitat destruction has led to the decline of populations of many aquatic species, most apparent in species such as river dolphins and large-bodied fish. There are now five species of freshwater dolphins left in the world, four of them living in major freshwater systems in Asia. All are critically endangered.
Marine animal populations have also fallen by 40% overall, with turtles suffering in particular. Hunting, destruction of nesting grounds and entangling in fishing nets have seen turtle numbers fall by nearly 80%.
A study in 2013 revealed that the Bluefin tuna, endangered for several years due to its misfortune as a sushi delight, suffered a catastrophic decline in stocks of more than 96% in the Northern Pacific Ocean. More than nine out of 10 of the species recently caught were too young to have reproduced, meaning they may have been the last generation of the Bluefin tuna. Driven by high demand and prices, fishermen use various techniques to catch tuna and increase the supply. This demand and supply cycle is leading to a faster disappearance and extinction of the fish. Although tuna are a source of food and livelihoods for humans, they are more than just that. In the marine food chain, the tuna are a top predator maintaining a balance in the ocean environment.
Unsustainable fishing is a major threat to marine life today. Bottom trawling, an industrial fishing method puts species at risk and also alters marine habitats. However, in addition to fishing and hunting, other human activities also put marine life at risk – hazards that include noise pollution, sea floor mining, and oil exploration and gas extraction. The development of coastal cities and a practice known as “sea-steading,” or building artificial lands in the ocean — with one such example being the United Arab Emirates famous construction of artificial islands off the coast of Dubai — also present problems to marine habitats.
The Amazon rainforest
The Amazon is a vast region. It spans eight countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. There is a clear link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet, as these rain forests, which contain 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon, help stabilize local and global climate.
The Brazilian Amazon, home to 40% of the world’s tropical forest, is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. Around 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) of forest are cleared each year. The systematic clearance of trees from the Amazon forces wildlife into ever-smaller patches of ground. At least 15 mammal, 30 bird and 10 amphibian species are expected to die out by 2050 from around half of the Amazon. Though few species are killed off directly in forest clearances, many face a slower death sentence as their breeding rates fall and competition for food becomes more intense.
The pressure of economic development and various financial crises has led to the Brazilian government’s proposed rapid development program in the Amazon to fuel the economy and get Brazilian’s the desired contemporary “way of life.” This plan foresees the construction of more than 20 hydroelectric power plants in the Amazon basin and an extensive push deeper into the rainforest which will further accelerate the loss of species.
Dolphins in China and Sparrows in India
China and India, two countries in Asia, are home to nearly 36 percent of the global population. These countries are also two of the fastest growing economies that have completely bought into the current economic and industrial system; their middle classes are consuming more than the combined populations of various countries. Both countries are also culprits in the plastic pollution of oceans. Two instances of extinction or threat to animal species from two of these densely populated countries are provided below.
The ‘Baiji Dolphin,’ a small, nearly blind white dolphin known as the Chinese river water dolphin, dated back to 20 million years. Nicknamed “goddess of the Yangtze river” and considered a national treasure, this dolphin was declared extinct in the year 2006. China’s economic development put immense pressure on this river dolphin. With over 400 million people living in the Yangtze catchment area and river-banks lined with large, industrialized cities, waste from residences and industries flowed ceaselessly into the river making human activity the single-largest threat to the aquatic mammal.
Additionally, greater use of the river for fishing, transportation, hydroelectricity and waterways development led to dredged riverbeds and concrete reinforcements further affecting the dolphin’s habitat. Building of the Three Gorges Dam in the early 2000s interrupted the dolphin’s movements upstream, and eliminated access to tributaries and lakes. Parts of the Yangtze River became much shallower because of siltation from deforestation and agricultural development.
The Yangtze is also one of the world’s busiest waterways; and increased ship traffic on the river confounded the sonar that the nearly-blind dolphin used to find food. The attendant noise pollution caused these animals to collide with propellers, causing injury and deaths. Boats grew in size, and fishermen employed wider and more lethal nets. In the 1970s and 1980s, an estimated half of Baiji deaths were attributed to entanglement in fishing gear. Only a few hundred were left by 1970. Then the number dropped down to 400 by the 1980s and then to 13 in 1997, becoming extinct after an expedition late in 2006 failed to record a single individual after an extensive search of the animal’s entire range. The Baiji Dolphin was the first large aquatic mammal to have gone extinct since hunting and overfishing killed the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.
The loss of the dolphin is likely to cascade through the food chain and affect the ecosystem, plants and animals living in the river. This will affect humans in the long run; but how we choose to deal with it depends upon whether we see ourselves as part of the ecosystem.
The ‘House Sparrow’ and its subspecies are worldwide in their distribution, except in the polar region. However, in 2002, sparrows were included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in the U.K. and since 2010, March 20 has been adopted as World Sparrow Day. According to one report, the sparrow population in parts of India, especially in coastal areas declined by 70 to 80 per cent. Sparrows are very sensitive and their sudden disappearance serves as sentinel warnings or as ecological indicators about impending environmental hazards.
Various causes have been cited for the decline: the general loss of greenery, grasses and vegetation in concrete urban areas leads to non-availability of tiny insects which serve as food for the hatchlings; excessive use of mosquito repellents indoors and insecticides outdoors; concrete buildings with no nesting sites for sparrows; use of air-conditioning that leaves no entry or exit points for feeding sparrow nestlings. Furthermore, the chemicals released due to use of anti-knocking agents in petrol in vehicles is said to cause damage to the sparrows. Some say that although adult sparrows eat grains, the use of chemically treated seeds and grains is harmful to them. Recent increase in electromagnetic radiations from cell phone towers outdoors and the large-scale use of wireless devices indoors is also said to have hastened the decline of this bird population. It could be the synergistic effect of all these environmental factors and pollutants that is leading to decline in the bird population.
This story of species extinction threats is not restricted to highly populated countries or rapidly developing economies alone. Destruction of environment is a global phenomenon. IUCN has listed the eleven countries with more than 900 threatened species and they range from poor to rich countries. Ecuador, in South America, tops the list with 2299 threatened species, followed by USA with 1287, Malaysia with 1236, Indonesia with 1225, Mexico with 1091, China with 995, India with 988, Tanzania with 979, Brazil with 965, Madagascar with 929 and Australia with 906 threatened species
It is clear that destruction of the environment is driven by human extraction from the planet, insatiable human consumption and the manner in which the waste products of human production and consumption are disposed.
At first it seems that we cannot co-exist with other plant and animal species. However, as the next segments shows, our history proves that we cannot co-exist with our own (other humans) as well.
We not only kill other species, we specialize in killing our own.
Segment 2: Genocides, War crimes, Ethnic cleansing, Crimes against humanity and serial warfare: The Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) and the Trials for Justice
Despicable as we are in the treatment of other species, history reminds us that we have been no less barbaric toward other humans. The pages of our history books are repetitive stories of one group of people going out and killing another groups for reasons ranging from land, resources, trade, food, religion, or sheer power and domination. Senseless killing of animals, plants or other people seems to be the favorite pastime of human beings on this planet.
However there is one aspect of our history that goes beyond even the senselessness of wars – the willful extermination of one group of people: Genocide — the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. In recent times we have seen such events in Rwanda, Sudan (Darfur), or Bosnia. Historically, the Armenian massacres under Ottoman rule and the near extinction of indigenous tribes in the Americas by colonizers are also known. However, the most horrific of them all has been the holocaust perpetrated against Jews in Nazi Germany during World War II.
The Holocaust or Shoah
The Holocaust refers to one of the most horrific genocides, one of the largest in history, where the nine million people of Jewish origin living in Europe before World War 2 were systematically targeted in Germany and German-occupied territory. Approximately two-thirds or six million Jews, including approximately one million children, were deliberately and intentionally killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators from 1941 to 1945. Some historians include the additional five million non-Jewish victims of broader Nazi crimes such as Gypsies, Poles, communists, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), and the mentally and physically disabled. In total, approximately eleven million people were killed. But the primary and largest deliberate target of the Nazis remained the Jews with the intention to exterminate all of them for no other reason than that they were Jews.
The biblical word “shoah,” meaning calamity or catastrophe, is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. The Nazis used a euphemistic phrase- “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (die Endlösung der Judenfrage) as a term for this genocide. The Final Solution became Nazi Germany’s plan during World War II to systematically exterminate the Jewish population in Nazi-occupied Europe through genocide.
The genocide progressed systematically in stages. After coming to power in January 1933 until the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939, the focus of the Nazi persecution of the Jews was on intimidation, taking their money and property, encouraging them to emigrate. Laws were passed to exclude Jews from civil society and forced into ghettos. The invasion of Poland in 1939 after the start of the 2nd World War brought the Nazis in close contact with three million Polish Jews. It marked the start of a far more savage persecution, including mass killings. Paramilitary units called Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units of the SS and the police were dispatched to German-occupied territories to murder around two million Jews and “partisans” in German occupied territories. Around 1941, after the invasion of Soviet Russia, the Nazi government began to conceive of a plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
The decision to systematically kill the Jews of Europe irrespective of geographic borders had been made by the time of the Wannsee Conference, which took place at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin, on January 20, 1942. The conference was attended by senior officials of the Nazi Party and senior representatives of ministries with responsibilities for the “Jewish question”—the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and Ministers for the Eastern Territories. With the decision to annihilate the entire Jewish population, extermination camps with gas chambers such as Auschwitz and Treblinka were constructed to kill large numbers of Jews in a short period of time. In this second operation, the Jewish population of central, western, south-eastern Europe were transported were transported by freight train to specially built extermination camps where they were put in gas chambers. About 42,500 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territories were used to concentrate, confine, and kill Jews and other victims.
Every arm of the Nazi German bureaucracy was said to be involved in the logistics of the genocide, turning the Third Reich into a genocidal state. It is said that anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people were direct participants in the planning and execution of the Holocaust. The phrase Lebensunwertes Leben (Life unworthy of life) was used to refer to the victims by the Nazis in order to justify the killings.
This systematic, planned genocide continued until the end of World War II in Europe in April -May 1945.
Post World War II – War crimes and the Nuremberg trials
After World War 2, some of those responsible for the Holocaust and war crimes were to be brought to trial. An International Military Tribunal (IMT) composed of judges from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union was constituted. Justice Robert Jackson, US prosecutor, believed that the war crimes trials should be held in Germany. Few German cities in 1945, however, had a standing courthouse in which a major trial could be held. One of the few cities that did was Nuremberg, ironically the very place where Nazi leaders proclaimed the infamous Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews of their property and basic rights. Jackson thought this was almost a karmic connection and chance for poetic justice. The Nuremberg Trials, as they came to be known, took place between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946.
The IMT presided over the hearings of twenty-two major Nazi criminals, prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who were placed on trial for crimes against peace – participation in the planning and waging of a war of aggression in violation of numerous international treaties; war crimes – violations of the internationally agreed upon rules for waging war; and crimes against humanity – namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated.
Twelve prominent Nazis were sentenced to death. Those individuals directly involved in the killing received the most severe sentences. Other people who played key roles in the Holocaust, including high-level government officials, and business executives who used concentration camp inmates as forced laborers, received short prison sentences or no penalty at all. Most of the defendants admitted to the crimes of which they were accused, although most claimed that they were simply following the orders of a higher authority.
Adolf Hitler, highest authority of the Nazis, and the person most to blame for the Holocaust, was never tried because he had committed suicide in the final days of the war, and so had many of the senior and closest aides such as Joseph Goebbels (dead) and Martin Bormann (missing). Many more criminals were never tried. Some fled Germany to live abroad, including hundreds who came to the United States and South America. Trials of Nazis continued to take place both in Germany and many other countries. People like Simon Wiesenthal and Israeli intelligence agencies with the support of various individuals and agencies continued to track fugitive Nazi war criminals across the world.
Who was Eichmann?
Adolf Eichmann (1906 – 1962) was a German Nazi SS – Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel). During World War 2, after the Wannsee conference (of 1942) Eichmann had coordinated and managed the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe. After World War II, Adolf Eichmann fled from Austria. He settled in Argentina under the name Ricardo Klement. Israeli Security Service agents seized Eichmann in Argentina in May 1960. He was taken to Jerusalem for trial in an Israeli court. The Eichmann trial aroused international interest, bringing Nazi atrocities to the forefront of world news. Many Holocaust survivors felt able to share their experiences as the country confronted this traumatic chapter. Then Israeli attorney general, Gideon Hausner, signed a bill of indictment against Eichmann on 15 counts, including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death. The execution by hanging of Adolf Eichmann on June 1, 1962, perhaps is the only time that Israel has enacted a death sentence.
Segment 3: Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt (1906 –1975) was a German-born political theorist. An assimilated Jew, she fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, was subsequently imprisoned in a concentration camp in France, and then ultimately escaped Europe in 1941 during the Holocaust and became an American citizen. She was a professor at a number of American universities, including the New School for Social Research and University of Chicago and is known for her books The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Although many describe her as a philosopher, Arendt did not agree with that label to her work because according to her philosophy was concerned with “man in the singular” and instead her work centered on the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” Arendt’s subjects deal with the nature of power, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. Therefore, Arendt described herself as a political theorist instead.
In 1961, Arendt was commissioned by New Yorker magazine to cover the Eichmann trials. She went to Jerusalem and wrote a series of articles for the magazine, later converted into a book: “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).”
In her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil.” Eichmann claimed he never aspired to be a villain. Rather, he claimed to have over-identified with the ideological cause and suffered from a lack of imagination or empathy. He was a career bureaucrat who simply wanted to belong and show his bosses that he was doing his job better than others. And couldn’t fully appreciate the human consequences of these career-motivated decisions.
Doug Linder writing about the Nuremberg trials had similar observations: “No trial provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than do the Nuremberg trials from 1945 to 1949. Those who come to the trials expecting to find sadistic monsters are generally disappointed. What is shocking about Nuremberg is the ordinariness of the defendants: men who may be good fathers, kind to animals, even unassuming–yet who committed unspeakable crimes.”
Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of people such as Eichmann. What had struck Arendt about Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem was his banality: “his inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view, his penchant for official sounding jargon, for stock phrases, for shallow elation, for being genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché, his empty talk. 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 Eichmann lied, but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the world and against the presence of others and against reality as such: an inability to think.
She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.
What Hannah Arendt meant and what she was perhaps trying to highlight was the philosophical issue behind the banal nature of evil – and the barbarism and bureaucracy of the 20th century. In a letter (dated September 20, 1963) to Mary McCarthy, American author, critic and political activist, Arendt wrote: “… the very phrase “Banality of Evil” stands in contrast to the phrase I used in the totalitarianism book, “radical evil.”
In her exploration and examination of totalitarianism, Arendt had used the word radical evil to describe what went on in the terror camps of Nazi Germany. However, radical evil or “hell” becomes a theological explanation for these actions. The idea of the sinner, a depraved, corrupted individual comes to the fore. The Holocaust could not have been conducted by one such evil force. Camps had to be run with the complicity of other people. Were they all carriers of such “radical evil?” This question was perhaps on Arendt’s mind as she sat through the trials in Jerusalem. By coining the phrase “the banality of evil” and by declining to ascribe Eichmann’s deeds to the demonic or monstrous nature of the doer, Arendt knew that she was going against a tradition of Western thought that sees evil in terms of ultimate sinfulness, depravity and corruption.
Arendt wrote elsewhere: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Using Eichmann as an example of perhaps the thousands of others who had made the Holocaust even possible through their everyday actions of running concentration camps or driving the freight trains that carried the victim, she argues that Eichmann and his ilk were perhaps not the type of evildoer found in literature, where evil is most often shown as a brilliant devil. Eichmann, according to Arendt, was completely second-rate, almost a clown. Of Germans at the time who saw figures like Eichmann as ingenious monsters, Arendt’s comment was: “They possibly understood this as a way of creating a certain alibi for themselves. If you succumb to the power of a beast from the depths, you’re naturally much less guilty than if you succumb to a completely average man.”
Arendt had, thus, challenged a tradition of philosophical thinking in the West: the sinfulness of one particularly bad evil doer versus the bottomless amoral mediocrity latent in millions.
There was an obvious emotional benefit in seeing those who perpetrate evil as monsters. It gives us hope that if there are few evil men, they can be identified, targeted and destroyed and the world can go back to its sanity. However, if we start believing that evil is banal – absolutely common and commonplace and lies in the mediocrity and thoughtlessness of many amongst us, who choose to follow orders like an everyday bureaucrat – stamping documents without thinking of their consequences, then it shatters that myth of the “evil devil” and makes life inherently uncomfortable. We have to look over our shoulder and look at our own hearts to see if we are that bureaucrat like Eichmann, whether we are doing things that perpetrate evil while we go about our lives unthinkingly.
What had become banal – and astonishingly so – was the failure to think. Indeed, at one point the failure to think is precisely the crime that Eichmann commits. Obviously, this is a scandalous way to describe his horrendous deeds that contributed to the shameful and horrific Holocaust, but for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking is genocidal, or certainly can be. That was the key lesson Arendt wanted to give when reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
“Banality of evil” became a huge controversy after it was released. The phrase itself was catchy, attention-grabbing, and forceful, but also very indicative. It made people think they knew what Arendt wanted to argue. Even those who had not read the book thought they knew what it meant. The phrase that Arendt used very intelligently actually by nature of its very directness went against her intelligent arguments. Many of the objections to her work are based on arguments that were probably never made by her.
Arendt did not argue that the evil perpetrated in the Holocaust was banal, nor did she fall prey to Eichmann’s manipulative presentation of himself as a man who was honorably obedient and just following orders nor did she say that Eichmann’s evil was the only kind of evil. Perhaps it was Arendt’s argument that she found Eichmann, the non-thinking man, who put forth his thoughtlessness as a virtue, very laughable – a buffoon almost. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of laugh-ability with the intense and horrific atrocity of the Holocaust that made the critics angry. Furthermore, Arendt also indicated that she expected a higher moral behavior from Jews. Arendt also ended up criticizing the manner in which the trial was conducted in Israel, pointed to the political intentions of some Israeli leaders. Arendt had also been critical of the way that some Jewish leaders acted during the Holocaust. She was almost holding up Jews to a higher level of conduct and action than others. In some ways perhaps Arendt was salvaging a sense of pride. But it made some others feel that Arendt, by downplaying the evil anti-Semiticism of Eichmann and people like him, had ended up “blaming the victims” instead.
This caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community. Many of her friends from within the Jewish community cut their relations with her. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. Because of this lingering criticism, her book has only recently been translated into Hebrew.
As Peter Baehr writes in The Portable Hannah Arendt (pg. xxvi): “Soon after Hannah Arendt’s report on the “word-and-thought defying banality of evil” was released published in February and March 1963, it became the subject of a venomous campaign. Both the phrase “banality of evil” and Arendt’s comments on the complicity of the Jewish Councils (Judenrate) in the deportation of their own people drew angry recrimination. Initially, the bitterness was greatest in the United States; former colleagues assailed her analysis; the Anti-Defamation League issued condemnatory memorandums; newspaper columns expanded in denunciation of this “self-hating Jewess…”
Almost 15 years later, in November 1977, a series of essays titled: “Thinking” written by Arendt were published in The New Yorker. Arendt was still ruminating about the Eichmann report and trial: “Behind that phrase (banality of evil) I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware that it went counter to our tradition of thought – literary, theological, or philosophical – about the phenomenon of evil. Evil, we have learned, is something demonic. It’s incarnation is Satan….Evil men, we are told, act out of envy; this may be resentment at not having turned out well through no fault of their own…”
“However what I was confronted with (at the Eichmann trial) was utterly different and still undeniably factual: I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous but the doer – at least, the very effective one now on trial - was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither monstrous nor demonic. There was no sign in him of firm ideological motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect either in his past behavior or in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.”
This thoughtlessness is at the root of the banality of evil.
Segment 4: Bureaucratic consumerism and Environmental Extermination: If this isn’t a holocaust, what is?
Keeping the controversy of the book aside – let us ask if the notion of “banality of evil” applies to the human condition today?
The wanton destruction and extinction of species and ecosystems wrought by human actions on the planet – does that not constitute a holocaust? After all, the term holocaust comes from the Greek word holókauston, referring to an animal sacrifice offered to a god in which the whole (olos) animal is completely burnt (kaustos). How that definition applies to the manner in which human activity is killing off species after species today? Only, in this case, the God that we are sacrificing all other species and the planet is our way of life – of consumerism at all costs. What is this “way of life” that Everyman desires and wants everyone on the planet to have?
Consumerism is the social and economic order of the day. It is an ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. The second half of the twentieth century sees the rapid and large expansion of consumerism as a way of life and it has redefined politics, economics, society and culture. Consumerism has come to define the good life and thus indirectly our “way of life” which is a promise to bring the good life to all on the planet through the expansion of the market. In the almost complete absence of alternatives (There is No Alternative – TINA), or any other political and social narratives, consumerism has become one of the dominant global social forces. Consumerism cuts across differences of religion, social class, gender, nationality. Even sworn enemies who fight over fundamentalism or terrorism seem to be in agreement about consumerism. When it comes to consumerism even serious issue such as climate change or environmental destruction are brushed aside, and people celebrate token days such as Earth Days on one assigned day of the year where everyone stops using electrical power for about one hour.
Consumerism is also linked to the global diffusion of technology and the increased ability to mass produce items. The supply side no longer remains a problem; goods and things can be produced at the rate of hundreds per minute. What has to be created is an increased demand. Marketing rose as a discipline within the schools of management. From the early management theorists who wanted to understand and improve worker efficiency, the attention shifted to methods by which companies could persuade and manipulate people to buy more. Mass media proliferated and so did the practice of advertising, public relations and all forms of marketing and selling. Thus, the second half of the 20th century also marks a definitive shift towards materialism. For instance, in the 1990s, the top-most reason for attending college was simply to make a lot of money; this was a radical departure from the reasons of the past such as: wanting to become an authority in a field or helping others in difficulty.
Consumerism has become bureaucratic – a ritual – common everyday occurrence. A bureaucracy is a way of administratively organizing large numbers of people together and applies to any organization, not just governments- schools, hospitals, and even corporations are bureaucratic. German sociologist Max Weber in his writings argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize human activity, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism. He saw bureaucratization as the rationalizing aspect of modern western society. Rationalization was the sociological term used to signify the substitution of logically consistent rules for traditional (or illogical) rules. Thus a rational, bureaucratic (modern) society saw a move away from the kinship, favoritism and unregulated aspects of pre-modern, feudal society towards a more ordered, predictable society based on rules.
The term bureaucracy literally means “rule by desks or offices,” a definition that highlights the often impersonal character of bureaucracies. The job of a bureaucrat is to implement organizational policy, to take the laws and decisions made by the top officials and put them into practice. Thus, the laws and policies of consumerism are written elsewhere and we the bureaucrats are the practitioners – practicing it every day in our daily lives.
Robert Merton pointed out the negative aspects of bureaucracies: inefficient and inflexible, almost oligarchical – concentrating power in the hands of a small number of people and this power was unregulated. For instance, in this age of consumerism, what we should consume is often dictated by a few celebrities and fashion houses and the high priests of luxury lifestyles on their fancy TV shows and pages of newspapers dedicated to them. The corporate companies that produce the goods often use media, advertising, film industry to control and dictate trends in consumerism. Weber had also stated that those who control these bureaucracies and organizations control the quality of our lives as well.
Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, in which an increase in the bureaucratization of human life can trap individuals in an “iron cage” of rule-based control. The iron cage, a set of rules and laws that everyone is subjected to and must adhere to, then limits individual human freedom and potential instead of creating a “technological utopia” that should set us free. It’s the way of the bureaucracy or institution and the individual human does not have a choice anymore; and whether we agree or disagree, if we want to survive today we need money and we have to consume. We have become the bureaucratized consumer. We are simply following the rules; and even though it is often said that consumerism appeals to our base emotions, to the lower brain, the entire project of consumerism is organized along rational lines. The mass and the products on the shelves are systematically maintained, the décor and layout of stores are planned, the advertising campaigns are designed to manipulate, marketing research is done systematically, and credit cards are handed out and installment schemes are devised to push consumerism. It is a completely planned and regulated system that caters to our base desires.
The interesting part is the manner in which this “way of life” has been sold globally. Everyone (Everyman) wants to be a consumer today – whether in the rich countries who is habituated and often addicted to consuming, or someone in the poor countries who is aspirational and wants to mimic the consumerism he or she sees on television, films or hoardings.
And in our desire to spread consumerism to more than 7 billion on this planet as the only way towards economic growth, it becomes a primary cause of this wanton destruction of Nature and extermination of millions of species. We have inadvertently and irreversibly applied the Final Solution to nature without any discussion
It forces us to ask: Aren’t we all (Everyman) complicit in this extermination of Nature just like Eichmann was in the perpetration of the Jewish Holocaust? What would you do with an Eichmann if you were a victim of the Holocaust- obviously put him on trial?
Segment 5: Relating Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil to consumerism and environmental destruction: What if the animals and plants and the oceans use our laws to put us on trial?
Genocide was first described as a crime by the UN General Assembly when it adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) in 1948. Article II of the Convention (CPPCG) defines genocide as: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The Convention (CPPCG) was adopted for humanitarian and civilizing purposes. Its objectives are to safeguard the very existence of certain (human) groups and to affirm and emphasize the most elementary principles of humanity and morality. Genocide is a crime under international law regardless of whether committed in time of peace or in time of war; it is a punishable international crime.
What if we were to apply the rules of the Convention to humans and their treatment of other species on the planet?
Peter Singer, Australian moral philosopher, would perhaps agree with the right of animals to conduct a Nuremberg or Eichmann type trial over humans to seek justice against the human being’s violent and exterminatory practices against them. Singer, whose ethical ideas fall under the umbrella of biocentrism, popularized the term “speciesism” in the book, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals and the subsequent exploitative treatment of animals. He believes that there is no reason not to apply this measure of good or ethical behavior – “the greatest good of the greatest number” – to other animals. He argues that the interests of animals should be considered because of their ability to feel suffering and that the idea of rights was not necessary in order to consider them. Singer has said: “All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.”
What if animals, plants and oceans were to conduct trials, such as the one at Nuremberg, to identify the war criminals in the genocide being waged against animals, plants, flora and fauna, the air, water and the earth? Who would be put on trial for human actions that are destroying other species of animals and plants as listed by IUCN?
Would it be Everyman?
What would be asked in the trial?
What would be Everyman’s defense?
I was just following the orders to consume. I was being obedient and compliant. I am simply a bureaucrat in this global game of consumerism.
Imagine you were Arendt and sitting in on the trials of Everyman, as prosecutors questioned him for perpetrating the holocaust on all other species and Earth that has already killed millions and caused extinction (the Final Solution). My question to you would be the same as Arendt asked after the Eichmann trials: Are we are all possessors of this trait called “radical evil” – are we being demons and Satan – all of us – when our actions or the human activities we engage in actually cause the extinction of other groups?
Do we appear like Satan to our children when we buy them things that are actually destroying their future habitat and making the world unlivable? Our child kisses us – and does not curse us. Being a good consumer becomes an act of love – when it is buying a gift for our spouses or children – a refrigerator for our wife and an air-conditioner for our child so that they are comfortable. Consumerism also connotes acts of success – a new car that reflects my victory in the rat races of careers and jobs.
These acts of love and acts of success are commonplace for all of us – an integral part of our very way of life – after all what is a life without love and success? Thus these acts of love and success which are defined and fructified through the practice of consumerism have become commonplace or banal and this banality has now become the enemy of millions of other species of the planet. Take the case of plastic, the toy I bought for my child, the refrigerator for my wife, the car for myself – all wrapped in plastic or consisting of plastic parts – which were carelessly, and almost without thought, disposed and dumped in the oceans – have now become the poison and means of certain death for sea turtles, whales, seals and fishes.
Don’t we all think of ourselves as normal – not evil, not barbaric, when we go about our daily lives in the 21st century- consuming and disposing and consuming and disposing in an unending cycle – without any regard for the planet or the oceans, forests, lands, rivers and the various other species of flora and fauna in it. Without realizing the ultimate destruction and death we are causing to the millions of other species on the planet and to the planet itself? If this is not a holocaust, then what is? And if we are not Eichmann – banal and nearly stupid – then who is? Most importantly what does Everyman – each one of us – need to do – in order to ensure that we are not Eichmann?
Is Everyman an Eichmann today?
Everyman in his everyday life in the 21st century, assumes that consumption and our ways of production are necessary and cannot be done without. He does not think when he goes out to buy the latest version of the phone or car. Everyman’s way of life takes for granted even without discussion or debate that various species and planetary resources have to be destroyed or sacrificed in order for human beings to continue with their current standards of living. Thus, the manner in which we go about our way of life is commonplace or banal and that is what makes it all the more dangerous. We continue to destroy all life on the planet as well as the future of our children without realizing what we are doing and without a moment of reflection. We are simply trying to be good consumers – good citizens of the consumer economy – good bureaucrats of the consumer economy – following the orders given to us by our economy and the culture it has created: our media, our advertisers, our schools, our political system, and all the neighbors that try to outdo each other by consuming more.
Our acts of love and acts of success become acts of violence for others. Acts of extermination. We perpetrate the Holocaust on all other species. As Arendt wrote: “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.”
In the 1989 book Justice, Not Vengeance, Simon Wiesenthal, Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor who became famous after World War II for his work in tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazi war criminals so they could be brought to justice, said of the Eichmann trial: “The world now understands the concept of a ‘desk murderer’. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”
Each one of us, thus, is an Eichmann trapped in the iron-cage of thoughtless consumerism – a way of life that necessarily harms nature through the use of products that from the time they are made to even after their disposal continue to be destructive of others. Everyman is an Eichmann destroying other species on the planet every time he participates in his “way of life.”
Doesn’t Everyman think of himself normal – not evil, not barbaric, and definitely not the perpetrator of a Holocaust – when he goes about his daily life in the 21st century? Every time he does something that is part of his way of life: opens a plastic wrapper, freezes a fish, rides a waterway, uses electrical power generated through a dam, throws a syringe, mines for minerals, answers a wireless phone call, builds a concrete house, switches on an air-conditioner, becomes a consumer or disposes his trash in an unending cycle – does he ever pause to think about the consequences of the actions subsumed in his “way of life” for the other animals, insects, plants, marine organisms, the air, forests, the land, the oceans or the planet. Everyman, and seven billion or more of him, goes about this “way of life” without realizing the ultimate destruction and death they are causing to the millions of other species on the planet and to the planet itself? The destruction and extinction itself constitute a holocaust?
But what does all this make Everyman? Isn’t Everyman today simply an Eichmann during the Holocaust – in the words of Hannah Arendt – Thoughtless?
Arendt ended the book Eichmann in Jerusalem by writing:
“Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
Does this hold true for Everyman (all of us) today as we seem to refuse to share the planet with other species? Must we hang? Most importantly what does Everyman – each one of us – need to do – in order to ensure that we are not Eichmann?
In the essay titled “Thinking,” Arendt dug deeper into the “thoughtlessness” of Eichmann and wrote: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality; that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; (however) Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that clearly he knew of no such claim at all.”
According to Arendt, it was not stupidity but vacuousness, an emptiness of ideas and intelligence (or lack in content) that had enabled Eichmann to do what he did with only infrequent pangs of conscience or pity. It was this strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil or remoteness from reality that had shown itself capable of wreaking more havoc that all the evil instincts taken together. Does this sound similar to Everyman’s condition and state of mind and actions today?
Are we all Eichmanns in that we do not know of any such claim on our thinking made by the facts and reality of the extinction of species and destruction of our environment? Obviously not, we do have the knowledge, because we celebrate Earth Day and various Species Days and send emails with environmental factoids and photos of dead animals and oil-slicks floating on oceans to each other. But do we really think about such issues? What is thinking about something then? Does our thinking about these facts force us to redefine our acts of love and success? Doesn’t love and success imply handing over a healthy environment to our children rather than some plastic toys and phones?
If not, then we continue to be the bureaucrat Eichmann, convincing ourselves that we are simply obeying orders and complying with the diktat of some unknown higher-up. Who is that higher up who is ordering us to consume? Is that a political leader, a corporation, an advertiser or simply our neighbor – the Joneses – and we are keeping up with them? Who is this evil person amongst us who is willingly and intentionally conducting this holocaust on Nature? Are we the evil ones or are we the banal, bureaucratic, thoughtless Eichmann ticking every box in the checklist of our consumeristic way of life?
Segment 6: Will thoughtfulness help? Can we shift from our way of life to pathways of lives (and co-existence)
Can we resist all those forces that make us lead this destructive way of life that we lead today? Will being thoughtful and non-violent resistance through the act of thinking and thoughtfulness bring those extinct species to life? Perhaps not – and even if we were to recreate Jurassic parks – we can never bring the ecosystem and the balance in which they lived to life? We cannot go back in time. If our knowledge or awareness about the suffering of other species does not make us act responsibly than are we really thinking? Who or what will move us away from this thoughtlessness?
After the Holocaust, the world united behind two simple words: Never Again. These words represent a promise to past and future generations that we will do everything we can to ensure the horrors of the Holocaust are not repeated. Imagine you were a low-down bureaucrat in the Nazi Third Reich – What would you have done to ensure that the Holocaust did not take place? Would you have been able to do something about that genocide – How? Now come back to the present day – you are a bureaucrat in the holocaust against nature- what are you doing today?
One can say I am merely following orders – being the good bureaucrat – looking for my promotion within this system of consumerism. Or I can say I am powerless. After all what can I, a puny individual, do against the powerful machineries of capitalism, consumerism, corporatism, and finance and other aspects of this “way of life” which has me in its vise-like grip?
Arendt found that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism, and that this choice has political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless:
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
Arendt mentions, Denmark, as a case in point:
“It was not just that the people of Denmark refused to assist in implementing the Final Solution, as the peoples of so many other conquered nations had been persuaded to do (or had been eager to do) — but also, that when the Reich cracked down and decided to do the job itself it found that its own personnel in Denmark had been infected by this and were unable to overcome their human aversion with the appropriate ruthlessness, as their peers in more cooperative areas had.”
“One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.”
Thinking and thoughtfulness can open our eyes to the consequences of our actions; and it will definitely, as Arendt argues, open our eyes to any genocide that our acts contribute to. It can also, perhaps, lead us to find avenues for alternative actions. Once the thinking starts, perhaps we will be able to think beyond the narrow, bureaucratic confines of the iron-cage consumerism of our contemporary human “way of life” and find a pathway of lives for all beings on this planet. Or maybe that is expecting too much from thought and thinking.
If at all, thoughtfulness may simply open us up to the suffering of other species. And once we are attuned to the suffering of others, we recognize that they are living, just like us. No one is superior or inferior – we are all just living. We will perhaps, then, live and let live.
And this would signal that we have matured as human beings. That we have come a long way from the days of the Jewish Holocaust. And we have truly honored those victims because we respect all life on this planet. We have learned our lesson: Never again.
© Nilesh Chatterjee, 2015
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Hannah Arendt Books and Arendt and Eichmann Trials
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