Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: Banality of evil is seen in the Holocaust

In light of recent anti-Semitic acts throughout the country, I have thought a considerable amount about the Holocaust and how it happend.

According to the United Nations, genocide refers to the attempted extermination of a group of people. This extermination is racially, religiously or ethnically motivated. For genocide to occur, there are some existing conditions that are usually present. Some of these include political confusion and disorganization.

I do not believe humans are supposed to understand the Holocaust, which is beyond human comprehension, but at the same time, we have to choose to commemorate and learn from it.

In order to understand how genocide works, writer Hannah Arendt uses the idea of “the banality of evil” in context of the Holocaust. Arendt presents the idea that many people who commit evil acts are sane. In hopes to understand how sane human beings commit colossal acts of evil, the banality of evil argument uses bureaucracy as its answer.

According to Arendt, these people may have been slightly intellectually or morally confused, but they were deeply organized and committed to carrying out their task, which happened to be the killing of all Jews. Humans carry out evil due to bureaucracy and personal advancement.

The banality of evil can be extended to other senseless violence, as bureaucracy and personal advancement succeeds morality. For example, when police officers disproportionately murder people of color, their desire to do their job and adhere to being a successful cop takes precedent. Part of being a good cop is protecting citizens from danger, but this is taken too far when racism is the finger behind the trigger.

Many of these incidents of police misconduct occur with no threat of danger. A simple movement by a driver can warrant murder. Certain cops’ commitment to the protocol, rule and general bureaucracy overpower human morality and consciousness, resulting in the taking of innocent lives by people with power.

As a culture of evil manifests, more rewards are given for this behavior. In the context of genocide and the Holocaust specifically, the more evil carried out, the higher reward and status. Ordinary men conduct extraordinary evil through the banality of evil. Man is a slave to bureaucracy.

But the banality of evil as a framework to understand genocide has to do with one’s personal belief and definition of free will. Do humans have free will in societies that control their positions? Are humans capable of going against the grain? If you believe in choice, the banality of evil might not make much sense. How could a human become so desensitized to innate evil in pursuit of personal gain? On the contrary, mob mentality and cults have great psychological permeance.

To place the banality of evil in a broader context in today’s prevalent acts of anti-Semitism is useless, as there is no singular social group at play carrying out harm. In order to understand hate crimes, we must acknowledge that hate is psychologically fueled by an emotion of anger and despair. When dealing with any type of violence, mental health should always be considered. But the banality of evil presents us with the idea that sometimes it is social forces that work from the top down, causing people to commit evil. But if people have free will, and not all humans are mentally ill, what are the ideological roots of hatred?

When a mass shooting occurs, many people are quick to say that the shooter was mentally ill and that we have to focus on mental health immediately. This is true: we as a nation do have an incredible problem in which mental health is often ignored. Gun violence and policy change also needs to be at the forefront of the conversation, as better gun legislation will prevent further senseless killings. What also needs to remain central is the ideological hatred behind the gun. In the case of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is anti-Semitism. By ignoring anti-Semitism, we are ignoring the main problem.

My question of evil as it relates to mental health remains unanswered, as it is largely unstudied. In the intellectual journalistic spheres of conversation it is important to acknowledge mental illness, policy control and anti-Semitism along with the other forms of hatred that motivate evil.

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