Wednesday, February 02, 2005

When I visited Auschwitz on a trip to Poland several years ago, it was a quiet summer day, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the neat and orderly buildings bore no trace of what had gone on inside. Here in this nondescript setting was what philosopher Hannah Arendt described as ‘the banality of evil.’

Arendt coined the phrase during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo charged with implementing the “Final Solution.” What struck her about Eichmann was his very ordinariness. He was not a comic-book villain, but your average middle-class Everyman. Much like the millions his branch of the SS rounded up and shipped to their deaths.

When you tour Auschwitz, you can walk through the gas chambers. There is an enormous room piled high with victims’ shoes, and another filled to the rafters with human hair. I remember a seemingly endless corridor with ID photos of prisoners, literally millions of them: young, old, some looking frightened, some weary, some defiant. They looked just like you and me.

But conspicuous by their absence at Auschwitz are the Eichmanns: the everymen on the other side. It is difficult to know how to represent them without seeming to show unwarranted, inappropriate, and frankly appalling sympathy for them—in simply representing them we humanize them. But in leaving them out we miss what may be the starkest lesson of the Holocaust—not only were the victims like us, but so were the perpetrators. It’s easy to walk away thinking of the millions who were murdered: “that could be me, or someone I love.” It is infinitely harder, more painful, but arguably as important to look at the perpetrators or those who stood idly by, and ask, “could that be me or someone I love?” Only then can we take measures to ensure it won’t happen on our watch.

Not surprisingly Vice President Dick Cheney chose the occasion of the liberation of Auschwitz to plug the administration’s own neocon liberation theology, which seeks to rid the world of evildoers. The trouble is, Liberators have a nasty habit of perpetrating unspeakable evils themselves. Remember, it was the Red Army under Stalin that liberated Auschwitz. In fact, the rhetoric of liberation has provided license for some of the most terrible atrocities in history.

It would be easy to relegate human atrocities to demonic supervillains and their drones, and were it not for the banality of evil we could. But we have our Eichmanns, too. At Abu Ghraib, for example, vastly different from Auschwitz in magnitude, certainly, but not so different in kind. If there is a lesson in the Nazi Holocaust it’s not that there are some comic-book villains out there waiting to perpetrate unspeakable evils—there may be—but the lesson of Auschwitz and Eichmann is how easy it is for all of us to be complicit in everyday evils that, when compounded, amount to unutterable atrocities.

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