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The Banality of Evil

The Banality of Evil

By Duane W.H. Arnold
Special to Virtueonline
September 14, 2020

There are days (and sometimes weeks) when you don't know what to write. Whatever you decide to write has the possibility of being negated by a religious or political cancel culture that seems to argue that awkward or troubling matters cannot be discussed, at least not without having your motives impugned.

Yet there are matters that should be discussed. Unfortunately, however, these are matters upon which we are divided. For instance, simply to discuss ethics and morality in public policy becomes a matter of partisan bickering. Are we then to say that as believers public ethics and morality have no place in our discussions? If lies are told that endanger the common good are we simply to keep silent? I begin to wonder, have we come to a place that words no longer matter?

I think we may, in some instances, have come to a place in time in which it is more than words not mattering, but actions as well.

A week or so back, I was reminded of one of the most frightening movies I have ever seen. The name of the film is 'Conspiracy' and it starred Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci among others. It was, literally, a horror film. Yet, there was no violence or bloodshed. There were no special effects employed. In fact, the film portrayed an event with which most of us are familiar, a board meeting around a conference table. The dialogue in the film is taken directly from the shorthand minutes of the secretary. Of the fifteen men around the table, nine are lawyers, with eight holding academic doctorates. Coffee and tea are offered before the meeting is called to order and the chairman announces that to save time, lunch will also be provided for the attendees. It could be the meeting of the board of directors of any multi-national company, but it isn't. It is the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942 at which the Final Solution for the extermination of the Jews was planned. The film shows the personality clashes or the participants as they move through the agenda, passing the motions for the classification and "evacuation" of the Jews with a simple show of hands. Words like "evacuation" are given new meanings and the brutal killing of millions is decided in comfort from chairs around a conference table.

It is perhaps the clearest example I know of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil".

I was reminded of this when I read the widely reported account of the 2018 meeting of US cabinet officials, including, among others, Sec. Pompeo, Sec. Azar, Sec. Nielsen and then Attorney-General Sessions. The meeting was chaired by White House senior advisor Stephen Miller. Round about a conference table in the White House situation room they discussed the new "zero tolerance" policy for immigration at the southern border. According to two officials present, they decided by a show of hands to separate children from their parents as a part of the new policy. Over three thousand children would be separated from their parents as an immediate result.

No, it is not the same as Wannsee except in certain respects, first and foremost being yet another example of the banality of evil. Moreover here, "custody" did not mean death (except in some few cases) it meant wire cages inside detention facilities.

Words matter. Lies matter. Actions matter.

This is true not only when it comes to the political arena, it is also true when it comes to churches and those institutions which are allied to churches. For example, while the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr., has faded from the headlines, we have been left with numerous unanswered questions. Was the board of Liberty University unaware of the blatant nepotism in which it seemed every member of the Falwell family had a salaried position? Was the board unaware of the insider real estate deals that they voted to sanction? Was the board unaware of Falwell's expense account and spending? Forgetting the events which led to his resignation, where was the accountability for words and actions previous to those events?

Words should matter. Lies should matter. Actions should matter. Unfortunately, unless it appears to affect us directly, we let it go or we make excuses.

Perhaps that is the banality of evil as well...

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
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