Paul Greenberg

Writing about the atrocities at Andersonville during the American Civil War, Stephen Vincent Benet captured the same quality in his words about the camp commandant:

One reads what he did

And longs to hang him higher

than Haman hung,

And then one reads what he said

when he was tried

After the war -- and sees the long, heavy face,

The dull fly buzzing stupidly in the trap . . .

Crush out the fly with your thumb

and wipe your hand

You cannot crush the leaden,

creaking machine,

The first endorsement, the paper on the desk

Referred by Adjutant Feeble to Captain Dull

For further information and his report.

Some men wish evil and accomplish it

But most men, when they work

in that machine,

Just let it happen somewhere in the wheels.

The fault is no decisive, villainous knife

But the dull saw that is the routine mind.

. .

How blame the cog in the machine, the bureaucrat who did everything the manual says he should, the official acting in his official capacity? And only in his official capacity.

Whether he acted the way a human being should, that is another, less tidy question.

We've all heard the rote excuses that are the bane of everyday life:

"That is our policy."

"That's the way we've been doing it ever since I've been here."

"I only work here."

"It's out of my jurisdiction."

Case closed. Policy followed. Signed, sealed and rubber-stamped. And passed on to no one in particular.

There is no need to inquire further. The law has been followed to the letter. The spirit? "That's not my department." What with all the law's sections, clauses, and sub-paragraphs, how expect it to have room for conscience?

Perhaps the most frightening aspect about the evil discussed, dissected, and debated at the trial of Adolf Eichmann and a dozen other such trials before and after, and still going on around the world to the point of boredom, is the routine nature of evil. Satan no longer has to go to and fro in the earth and walk up and down in it to stir up evil. He can sit at a desk.

. .

Another long-delayed trial is about to commence in Cambodia all these years after the Killing Fields. You can be sure the paperwork entered in evidence will be in order. And the tribunal a model of circumspection. Much thought has gone into arranging these proceedings -- to be sure, there is no danger they'll implicate anyone still in power. Justice must have its carefully circumscribed limits, lest it embarrass.

The trial in Phnom Penh, or just outside it at a sanitary distance, will be conducted in complete accord with accepted standards. The kind that apply whether the institution being examined is a government, corporation, university or hospital. Call it official, certified apathy. The kind immune to either moral disgust or just human curiosity. ("I never learned what happened to the complaint.")

The important thing is to protect the institution. As for the individual, especially the troublesome sort who ask too many questions, have them file a report and send them on their way. So we can all go home at the end of the day and forget about it.

The banality of evil is scarcely confined to one time or one nation. It is the result, the insignia, the overriding characteristic of the bureaucratized society. And mind.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.