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The banality of evil (cont'd)

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Everything was in order at Penn State. For the longest time. All the necessary reports had been filed. Any crimes had been reported to the proper authorities on campus years ago. There was no need to go any further. Couldn't we just keep this in the family? Why involve police and courts and all that? Or anyone but the school's idolized football coach, Joe Paterno. Who could read his press releases and doubt he would do the right thing?

When it turned out he didn't, both the saintly coach and the university's hear-no-evil, see-no-evil president were dismissed. The whole, sorry chronicle of their failure to actually do anything about the evil in their midst continues to unfold. The grand jury report made particularly depressing reading.

It's all enough to bring back a comment from a respectable German official that is still tucked away in one of my yellowing files. He said it in the course of one of the war crimes trials that were still going on in Germany long after justice was supposedly done at Nuremberg.

Yes, he told the court, he had witnessed the mass murder the court was investigating. And he had reported it to his superior in Berlin. Like the officer and gentleman he was. For he was a model of Teutonic thoroughness. Grundlichkeit personified. Seeing all, reporting all, doing nothing. He would have fit in well at Penn State. To quote from his testimony:

"When I made my report back in Berlin to the chief ... physician, he was as shocked as I was. He slammed his fist on the table and yelled, 'This is a shame on Germany....' He said he would complain ... but I never learned about what happened to the complaint."

No doubt it was promptly and properly filed. It may still be around somewhere in the archives, gathering dust. The important thing, maybe the only important thing to some, is that the report was made, not what was done about it, if anything.

It's a rule of the modern, bureaucratized state: So long as all the paperwork is in order, then everything is. Alles ist in ordnung. At least on paper. Even after all these years, you can almost hear the German officer's heels click. Jawohl!

Somewhere, no doubt, Joe Paterno has a copy of all the memoranda he sent to the university about this or that outrage he duly reported, recorded and registered. And then duly, officially and thoroughly forgot. Till it turns up years later, like Banquo's ghost at a sports banquet.

Hannah Arendt, who outraged a generation by describing the most awful of evils as the product of routine minds, had a phrase for it: the banality of evil.

. .

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.

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