Reading Arendt in Islamabad

Hannah Arendt in her magnificent “Eichmann in Jerusalem” pointed out that you don’t have to be a monster to do horrible things. Even “normal” and even “decent” people do monstrous and evil things in the right set of circumstances.

Adolf Eichmann was the civil servant responsible for ensuring that his concentration camp ran “efficiently” and that the trains transporting Jews to the camp ran smoothly. He was of course aware that Jews came here to be executed, but to him the job assigned to him held precedence over any personal feelings (and he did show extreme remorse on occasion). The prosecutors during his trial tried to paint him to be a monster but he was not even remotely in that zone. To him it was a job to be done and to be done well. Even when during the fall of the Nazi regime, he was told to stop the trains, he ensured that they still ran; because that was what his state had demanded of him and that surely his superiors were wrong in countermanding that process. When asked why he countermanded his orders to keep the trains running his response was simply: “oh but the trains must run”. Not out of spite or hate for Jews (which he apparently did not have), but merely to do what the society of his time deemed correct and right. No personal feelings in the matter.

In covering Eichmann’s┬átrial in Israel for her newspaper, Arendt correctly identified something more sinister than an evil monster. She identified that in a society where right is wrong and wrong is right, ordinary citizens do monstrous things while not recognizing this atrocity. They even feel that they are doing the right thing. In this way the evil that they do becomes “banal” or commonplace. She called this the “banality of evil”.

I am reminded of this in the light of the events of the past month. Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salman Taseer for what Qadri thought was an insult to the Holy Prophet. A month ago Qadri – who had appealed for mercy but not shown remorse over his act – was hanged after the last of his appeals was turned down. In his funeral and later tens of thousands mourners poured onto streets and much ink was shed his heroics. Some who did not agree with his killing still felt that he was justified. Some of the street protests turned violent and Islamabad was held hostage by these protesters for days. They even demanded that all Ahmedis be exiled from Pakistan. The overwhelming feeling was that use of extreme violence was justified to enforce the will of people over their dissenters. And of course there was that often repeated under current that Salman Taseer had brought this upon himself. So killing over dissent is justified and that dialogue is to be met with force.

The easy thing would be to declare that our moral compass is flipped and that we too are experiencing “banality of evil”, but that would be too easy. The more difficult questions would be why did we get this way, what should we be thinking through at this point and where would our paths – current or the alternative where shrink back from abyss – lead us. But think about ourselves and do it honestly we must.

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