It is to 20th Century political philosopher Hannah Arendt that we owe the ironic trope ‘banality of evil’. The expression she coined reporting for The New Yorker on the trial of one Adolph Eichmann, a former Schutzstaffel officer who—rendered by Mossad in Argentina circa 1960—stood accused of being Hitler’s man in logistics at the time of the Final Solution. Tried in Israel in 1961, Eichmann was O.J. when O.J. was still in junior college. His was a trial that the government of Israel ensured was afforded a level of media exposure that is now routine in the United States for the publicly notorious… a level of exposure the trial of Officer Darren Wilson would have no doubt received had St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch seen fit to indict the latter man for the killing of Michael Brown in August of this year.
Eichmann’s crime? He had directed the removal of much of an unwanted population—Jews, Roma, and other demographics deemed ‘unfit to live’ by Hitler and the Reich—to death camps in German-occupied Poland. (Involved from the start in plans to remove the European Jewry to, first, Madagascar, then, the Soviet Union, Eichmann was a bureaucrat who—when German military failures necessitated abandonment of plans to deport to either location—more or less signed on to the Final Solution with something like a shrug of the shoulders. His “So be it” was effectively complicity, which got him hung.) If the acts attributed to him by his Israeli prosecutors lacked the visceral sadism we tend to associate with a man like Josef Mengele, the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ of Auschwitz, Eichmann was nonetheless a key player in the Holocaust. Thus, when he was put in the dock in April of 1961, what we were supposed to see in him was a devil in the flesh. We were supposed to see a man with horns on his head, as it were, sweating out the balance of the rest of his life in a televised hot seat.
Yet, in said hot seat, he didn’t appear so, at least not to Arendt.
To Arendt, the man brought to trial in 1961 was neither a demon nor a criminal master mind. (Dissecting the mind of Eichmann, cutting him up on the stand, was never going to grant us insight into one of the most egregious crimes in human history.) If a loyal and punctilious officer, Eichmann was an unassuming man of average intelligence whose apparent reliance on faulty heuristic reasoning and thought-terminating clichés made him seem pitifully dense at times. Thus, if accountable for his actions, if guilty of the crimes for which he was hung, he was an inadequate scapegoat. And if a participant in an incomprehensible evil, he didn’t at all suit the role of EVIL itself, of ‘evil incarnate’… a role that not even the detestable Saddam Hussein played well when subjected to the Eichmann treatment.
No, Eichmann—the Eichmann observed during his trial, anyway—appeared to be what we might call an ‘average Joe’, a man whose less than tragic flaw was neither hubris nor Hitlerian destructiveness but a regrettable penchant for heeding too much the voice of authority. In the latter respect—in not just heeding but worshipping authority—the man was only too ordinary. He was us. (At least, two thirds of us!) He was, as Arendt suggested, ‘banal’. More than that, he was what eccentric psychoanalyst (and famously trenchant social critic) Wilhelm Reich once called an “indiscriminate slave”. ¹ The latter—Reich’s indiscriminate slave—is the subject that has learned to follow orders promiscuously, to serve anyone with credentials and a voice of a certain commanding pitch… the subject for whom doing one’s duty has become pathological, and who is fertile ground for the processes of fascism. Though loyal, well-mannered, and often exceedingly moral—‘moral’ in the sense of being fastidiously obedient—this subject’s willingness to serve is so extreme, it borders on the sociopathic. Often, it appears to us that he is not quite accountable for his own actions, that, as an actor, he is capable—if given the order and provided a catchy slogan (’Gott mit uns’, ‘Me ne frego!’, ‘Live free or die!’, and so on and so forth)—of doing the unthinkable.
Eichmann was both capable of and did the unthinkable. Justifiably (I think) he died in infamy. A criminal.
“So what?” you may ask, “What does that… what has Eichmann to do with Officer Darren Wilson, with the Ferguson situation?”
I admit, it was Eichmann—Arendt’s Eichmann—that first came to mind as I watched George Stephanopoulos’ recent interview with the beleaguered Ferguson County police officer.
In August of this year—according to a number of credible witnesses sufficient to indict at least Judge Wachtler’s famous ham sandwich—Wilson wasn’t merely complicit in a violent crime; he perpetrated one. (To the extent that the shooting of Michael Brown also made him complicit in the broader crime of repression is arguable, but not the point of the point of the Ferguson protests. To my knowledge, no one protesting St. Louis County’s non-indictment of Darren Wilson is keen on representing the latter man as the ‘Eichmann’ of judicial repression of blacks in the United States.) Yet what we saw in Officer Wilson during his interview wasn’t the would-be Skinhead some would make him out to be. Nor was it an especially cunning interlocutor, a man who—notwithstanding the fact that he was a cop, a trained witness—would have aced cross-examination. Rather, in the interview, he comes off as a somewhat awkward, mostly deadpan young man whose diffidence and artlessness is evidenced in the rushed and automatic answers he gives to the key questions put to him. (Again and again, questioned by Stephanopoulos as to his tactics and the result—a dead, unarmed kid—Wilson at once hastily and laconically spits out a pertinent series of thought-terminating clichés: “I was doing my job…”, “The training took over…”, “It was survival mode…”, and so on and so forth.)
Granted, Officer Wilson wasn’t on the witness stand. Not really. In lieu of a prosecutor at the trial many residents of Ferguson, MO and millions around the country think Darren Wilson should have had in this case, he was questioned in a unhurried, forty-five minute tête-à-tête by a low-key infotainer who mostly threw soft balls at him. The conditions of his interview belied three glaring facts about this man’s informal testimony:
His account was fundamentally inconsistent. In the interview, Wilson reports feeling, at one moment, in fear for his life, feeling—nay, just wanting to survive—the “immense power” of Michael Brown’s alleged assault on his person (which power he likens to that of Hulk Hogan matched against a child!), and, at the next—in the blink of an eye—feeling compelled to pursue when, after the first shot that struck him, Brown proceeded to flee. Prompted thus by Stephanopoulos: “You felt it was your duty to give chase…”, Wilson replies, in rather Eichmann-like fashion (again, with a formulaic thought-terminating cliché): “That’s what we were trained to do.” The improbable transition from mortal fear to dutiful action is poorly pursued by Stephanopoulos. As is Michael Brown’s somewhat inexplicable decision to flee from a man with a gun whom, we are given to believe, he had overpowered. We are asked accept the latter cliché (“That’s what we were trained to do”) as explanation of it. No effort is made to tease out this fundamental incongruity: how is it that such auto-heroism manages to ‘click’ in a man given to the perception that the perpetrator facing him is some manner of “demon”, one described as fighting through a hail of bullets by means of supernatural powers?
His account was largely unchallenged. That George Stephanopoulos is no Mike Wallace—much less a surrogate prosecutor—is (depending on one’s outlook) laughably or painfully obvious. More than Stephanopoulos’ weakness as an interviewer, however, what is striking about the interview itself—ginned up as an ‘ABC exclusive’—is that it is framed as the ‘way it happened’, i.e. as the official version of the events surrounding Michael Brown’s killing… framed in a way that no investigative journalist worth his salt would accept given the published results of the Ferguson grand jury investigation. What’s more, ABC elected to exclude from the broadcast transitions to statements of the many eyewitnesses that not only directly but pointedly contradict Wilson’s story. Such statements are vaguely alluded to by Stephanopoulos throughout the interview (“Some say you appeared out of control”, “Some say Michael Brown’s hands were up”, and so and so forth), but never with sufficient force and specificity to compensate for the lack of eyewitness testimony.
His unequivocal denial of the root of the problem in Ferguson (and elsewhere) was largely unchallenged. Claims Wilson: “You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you.” Prompts Stephanopoulos: “So, the result would have been the same had Michael Brown been white…”, a contention Wilson hastens to affirm. He is not challenged on his affirmation. Throughout the interview, largely unchallenged, Wilson categorically denies the root of the problem, the reason the situation in Ferguson has resonated nationally: Michael Brown’s summary execution on the streets of Ferguson, MO was by no means an isolated incident; excessive use of force by police against indigent minorities (blacks in particular) is a national pandemic. It has been so for several decades. (To a certain extent, the fact that indictment is even being considered in case like the killing Michael Brown—when, in the past, it would have almost certainly been swept under a judicial or procedural rug—can be considered a positive sign.) Wilson’s disavowal—and the disavowal of right wing media outlets like Fox, whose only too predictable response to the Ferguson situation has been, as it was during the trial of George Zimmerman, ‘If blacks were better behaved, these kind of things wouldn’t happen’—is essentially disavowal of the reality of white privilege in the United States. It stems from the sometimes naïve, sometimes disingenuous contention that the social conditions that motivated the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s no longer exist, that the fact that we honor MLK, have an African-American President and that the dreaded ‘N-word’ (among other such epithets) is now universally taboo is somehow indisputable proof of this fact. Cynical Republican pundit Lee Atwater once remarked that, as one can no longer explicitly use fear and loathing of blacks to gin up the conservative base in the United States, one must resort to dog whistle politics, i.e. use class-based rather than racial and ethnic antagonisms to summon the same emotions. (Rather than for ‘blackness’, the post-Civil Rights era conservative politico must take poor African-Americans to task for being too lazy, too unprincipled, too dependent on social services to compete on a labor market. Above all, he must paint them as being too prone to use race as an excuse for their failure to achieve social mobility.) Today, having thoroughly digested the insufferable ethos of the Reagan years—and having been conditioned by more than two decades of propaganda deftly crafted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes—21st Century conservatives don’t even really need the whistle. Being, for the most part, far less cynical than was Atwater (and far more self-righteous than was Reagan), Red State America is today very much disposed to buy without remorse into the notion that white privilege is a myth, that struggling blacks simply use it as political weapon. At once central to the situation in Ferguson and characteristic of the tone-deaf impotence of leaders like Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is Darren Wilson’s blunt, potato-faced disavowal of the ongoing crisis. (Wilson finds “sad” and incongruous the now national crisis that has caused the slogans “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “Black lives matter” to go viral and has people throughout the country performing 4 ½ minute ‘die-ins’ in shopping malls and (to great effect) in front of rush hour traffic.) For whatever reason, ABC and George Stephanopoulos chose not to press him on his disavowal… not overtly, anyway.
Of course, though largely weak sauce and full of glaring omissions, Stephanopoulos’ interview wasn’t a total flop.
Stephanopoulos did do one thing well. By means of his muted approach and carefully timed repetition of key questions, otherwise incurious George was able to coax Darren Wilson into revealing himself to be what he was: a child of his situation, of the situational response of the 21st Century American beat cop. He was able to bring out what I contend is the Eichmann in Wilson… the Eichmann in the thousands of Wilsons patrolling American streets everyday: the indiscriminate slave to duty, the automaton whom obedience—rather than aggression or sociopathy—has led to crime and/or infamy. Asked repeatedly questions about his tactical reasoning, about motivations, about ‘second thought’ (“What would you do differently?” a question that, pitifully enough, Wilson answers much in the way that George W. Bush answers questions about second thoughts on the Iraq War!), as Eichmann once did, Wilson responds with what are virtually non-answers: thought-terminating clichés about his training, about his job, about ‘survival mode’. It’s clear he’s not thinking. It’s clear he can’t see the inconsistency of his position. (He can’t see where a statement like “All I wanted to do was live… that was it” is inconsistent with “You can’t ever let your guard down, wherever you are” and Wilson’s rebuke of such options as staying in his car, running, or even backing up a bit.) In perhaps the most pointed moment of this otherwise pointless interview, Stephanopoulos observes: “You use the passive tense a lot” (i.e. in describing the shooting). The latter was Stephanopoulos’ response to the weirdest—and, I think, the most telling—turn of phrase used by Wilson in the interview:
“It [Brown’s killing] wasn’t the intention of that day; it’s what occurred that day.”
Whatever were Stephanopoulos’ objectives going into the interview, it was in evoking such a statement that he succeeded in bringing to light at least a simulacrum of truth in the case of Officer Darren Wilson. (Yet it is only that, a simulacrum.) Wilson’s duty-driven and automaton-like behavior and deportment is a symptom; it’s not the disease.
Wilson—like thousands of police officers around the country—would seem to be, as I have said, a child of his situation. The killing of Michael Brown—if characterized by racial component that cannot be ignored—was, strictly speaking, neither a hate crime nor a simple crime of aggression; it was a situational response. If an act—just or unjust, depending on one’s perspective—it was the product of half an actor, a machine-man whose capacity for authentic moral judgment has been put into question. (Put differently—in terms to which AWilson himself alluded during his informal testimony—more than Wilson himself, it is Wilson’s role and all that has gone into it (training, ‘the job’, the expectations of the job, etc.) that is on trial today… a trial that is ongoing, irrespective of the pass given Darren Wilson by St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch.) What’s more, if an evil, the phenomenon of police violence against indigent blacks in the United States, it is an institutional, not a metaphysical one. In the idiom of Hannah Arendt, it is a ‘banal evil’.
“I’m just a simple guy,” says Darren Wilson toward the end of his interview with George Stephanopoulos. A simple guy with a “clean conscience” (clean, because he did his job). As such, Wilson is the poster child for predatory police departments around the country. He is the poster child for Milgram’s 65%. (It will be remembered, the Milgram experiment itself was directed with Eichmann’s case in mind.) He is the poster child for an increasingly dysfunctional, for-profit justice system. He’s what happens when policing and the administration of justice becomes—not just a process of governance, and not just a necessary evil—but a business.
In 2013, on the subject of predatory policing and the correlation of the latter with civil asset forfeiture laws, The New Yorker magazine quoted former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh thus:
In 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh boasted, “It’s now possible for a drug dealer to serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents driving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation.”²
What Thornburgh was touting was the virtue of asset forfeiture provisions of the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act. As The New Yorker points out, the beauty of these provisions was that they tended to sync President Ronald Reagan’s desire to stanch public sector spending with his desire to play hardball when it came to crime, specifically organized crime (Stillman, 2013). Understand that the civil asset forfeiture provisions of the above act were written with wildly affluent South American drug dealers (i.e. organized crime) in mind. Seizing the assets of such actors was one way law enforcement had of neutralizing a considerable advantage of theirs: their massive wealth. This approach has had its merits, but where it has gone wrong over the past 30 years is in the extent to which its objective has evolved. Today, those against whom it is levied are not simply affluent drug dealers. More and more, they are poor and working class urban minorities in traditionally high crime areas, peoples whose wealth isn’t so much a weapon—as it is in the case of drug lords—but, as it were, ‘low hanging fruit’. (To the extent that asset seizure—and predatory policing in general—is to be used in the process of fighting crime, who better to use it against than the socially and politically voiceless, i.e. the urban poor?) More and more—making use of practices like broken window policing and New York City’s ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ policy—these areas are worked by agencies seeking not simply to eliminate crime but to extract profit for municipalities, profit needed to compensate for the shrinking budgets that are the product of an age of protracted tax holidays. (In other words, enduring predatory policing in urban areas is yet another way the poor and working classes are helping to pay for regressive, supply side tax policies!) The long and the short of this trend is that is has tended to put police in indigent minority communities in the position of being both fault finders and collectors of informal taxes. It has put them in the situation of having to be predators… a situation that brings with it consequences.
Of course, exacerbating the latter—the situation I speak of—is the presently burgeoning, increasing privatized, for-profit prison system. To the extent that locking up masses of minority and low income perps has become a business model, is it any wonder the United States has an incarceration rate that tops even that of South Africa and Vladimir Putin’s Russia? And is it any wonder that the fault finding and aggressive tendencies of police in low-income urban areas has helped to develop predators in their ranks… predators who may well—along with Officer Darren Wilson—sleep well at night, if only with the solace of the thought that ‘I have done my job’?
Darren Wilson has a clean conscience. Eichmann had one too. Having been convicted and facing his own execution, he was peculiarly untroubled. Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil describes his inglorious end thus:
Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.” He walked the fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect, with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees, he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight. “I don’t need that,” he said when the black hood was offered him. He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.³Several pages later, in the epilogue to the above publication—in a fascinating passage—Arendt addresses Eichmann thus:
“You admitted that the crime committed against the Jewish people during the war was the greatest crime in recorded history, and you admitted your role in it. But you said you had never acted from base motives, that you had never had any inclination to kill anybody, that you had never hated Jews, and still that you could not have acted otherwise and that you did not feel guilty. We find this difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe; there is some, though not very much, evidence against you in this matter of motivation and conscience that could be proved beyond reasonable doubt. You also said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or most all, are guilty, nobody is. This is an indeed quite common conclusion, but one we are not willing to grant you. And if you don’t understand our objection, we would recommend to your attention the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two neighboring cities in the Bible, which were destroyed by fire from Heaven because all the people in them had become equally guilty. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with the newfangled notion of ‘collective guilt,’ according to which people supposedly are guilty of, or feel guilty about, things done in their name but not by them—things in which they did not participate and from which they did not profit. In other words, guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you did, this would not have been an excuse for you.
“Luckily, we don’t have to go that far. You yourself claimed not the actuality but only the potentiality of equal guilt on the part of all who lived in a state whose main political purpose had become the commission of unheard-of crimes. And no matter through what accidents of exterior or interior circumstances you were pushed onto the road of becoming a criminal, there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done. We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life and of your motives or with the criminal potentialities of those around you. You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and, knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal court. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”⁴
That—notwithstanding my questionable behavioral comparison—Darren Wilson is no Adolf Eichmann should be obvious to any sensible reader of this article. Wilson, in the line of duty, killed an unarmed teenager, a young man who, though likely riding cannabis high—and though possibly guilty of a petty crime (shoplifting)—posed no imminent threat either to Wilson or the public. Wilson’s was an act of criminal negligence, for which, in a better world, he would be held accountable. No carefree bystander to the crimes of the Third Reich, Adolf Eichmann mapped out the logistics for a regime that aspired to murder an entire unwanted population. He was the mother and father of all criminal enablers. If execution suits any crime (and I myself would suggest that it does not), it suited his. I don’t compare the two—Eichmann and Wilson—hoping to equate fundamentally racist and piss-poor American policing with Nazism. Still, I would assert that it is not mere counter-cultural sentiment that compels me to make the comparison.
The criminal acts of Darren Wilson and Adolf Eichmann, what they have in common is that they are ultimately situational responses to demands from unreliable sources of authority, i.e. sources lacking reasonable justification for action. (This is a way of saying that—regardless of the moral status of those who carried them out—such acts were the fruit of fundamentally broken systems of governance.) They are the legacy of machine-men who, whether owing to ‘training’, fear, or the vagaries of social and political intercourse, have come at some point to lose what I consider to be the mature human being’s natural capacity to morally judge the ethical consequences of their actions and to refuse the unjust command. (Understand that I am one who, though no Kantian, can’t get past the notion of das [angeboren] moralische Gesetz… one who considers ‘crime’ as such to be essentially systemic and a social and political phenomenon.) Albeit to varying extremes… both men—both machine-men—in action found themselves agents of bad systems of justice directed against unwanted and anathematized populations. Today, both are reviled for crimes that were too big for their own (machine) skins. Both have failed, both as machines and as men.
The problem we are left with—in the wake of their failure—is this: how do we do justice to their victims? how, given a situation in which the traditional procedure for doing so, viz. exacting verdictive revenge on actors we deem ‘responsible’ for suffering of said victims, isn’t entirely relevant or appropriate? Eichmann, the Nuremberg Ten… Wilson, Pantaleo, Loehmann… Das Volk, We, the People… In the final analysis, some of these hang, some are allowed to persist. The idea that ‘justice has been served’ by nailing any party I have mentioned to a proverbial world-historical wall is, to my mind, moot, given the role bad (unreliable) authority has had to play in the situational failure of each. And, to the extent we find—in the above cited passage—Hannah Arendt herself appearing to disparage the notion of ‘collective guilt’ (and all that comes with it), with respect to such failure—with respect to social and judicial remedies—I am compelled to advocate, not mayhem, but a solution of collective responsibility.
Arendt, H., 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
Reich, W., 1974. Listen Little Man!. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Stillman, S., 2013. The New Yorker Magazine. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/...
[Accessed 29 November 2014].
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