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Axis of evil

Paul Vallely

Vallely'I have always struggled with the phrase 'the banality of evil'.  Very often evil has a glamour, as the Anders Behring Breivik trial in Oslo has shown. It is, of course, a specious attraction, but there will be those who are as seduced by his narcissistic internet-assembled medal-bedecked 'Knights Templar' uniform as they are by the preposterous poses, silly salutes and delusional rhetoric which complete his deadly fantasy. That is why the Christian baptism rite asks the assembled company to reject the devil and 'all his works and pomps'. Evil can be sexy, as literature has shown since  Milton. Hollywood trades on evil's ambivalence.

The Oslo court is focusing on the question 'mad or bad' but the rest of us would do better to dwell on the nature of badness. Evil, says Susan Neiman in her classic book of the same name, nowadays stands for 'absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation'. But the archetypal Macbeth or Iago image may be as unhelpful as focusing on Breivik's pathetic self-aggrandizement.

The Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt first minted the phrase 'the banality of evil' when she was covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man who was the transport manager for Hitler's programme to exterminate the Jews. She was trying to explain to herself how the chief architect of the Holocaust turned out not to be some charismatic monster but an ordinary little bureaucrat, doing his job like the rest of us, who kept insisting he was only 'following orders'.  She wanted to sever the identification of evil with evil intent. Eichmann, she said, was a man who 'had no motives at all' beyond advancing his career through securing the good opinions of his superiors.

Liberation theologians invented a related idea. They talked about 'structures of sin', a term which Pope John Paul II borrowed and defined as 'influences and obstacles which go far beyond the actions and brief life span of an individual' which are harmful to society. It is a phenomenon which is all round us today. The Macpherson report into the way the police handled the murder of Stephen Lawrence coined the phrase 'institutional racism'. But it is there in so much more in the warp and weft of modern life.

Bankers and company bosses who arrogate to themselves the decision that they are 'worth' multimillion salaries and bonuses, even when they lose billions, are part of our contemporary banality of evil. So too is the Murdoch empire, with its casual cultivation of callous indifference to morality, privacy and sensitivity to the feelings of its victims. So too is the repeatedly exposed tendency of the bishops of the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual malfeasances of paedophile priests.

The term banality does not here minimise the crime. Rather it explains it, and reveals how deep-rooted it is. Evil can become normal, prosaic or matter-of-fact. It can even, as in the case of the Catholic hierarchy, be rationalized as good because it is obedient or because it serves a larger purpose - the ability of the Church to do good would be damaged if its public image is tarnished, therefore it is permissible to lie, dissemble and hedge in the interest of that greater good, the self-deceiving argument goes.

What this suggests is that evil is not some deep ontological or even supernatural other. Rather it can be woven into our daily life with its office hours, tea breaks and unimaginative time-and-motion efficiency. Hannah Arendt, I think, intended to shock with her phrase. She wanted to alert us to how we all can sleepwalk into evil if we allow mundane immediacy to override our mechanisms for moral objection. Bureaucracy enables that because it reduces personal autonomy, replacing it with training or the knowledge that 'if I don't do it somebody else will'. Radical evil, she said in another phrase, grows like a fungus - a kind of parasite that grows without having explicitly evil intentions but which is all the more menacing for that. Evil comes not from a wicked heart but a lack of moral imagination.

The same is true of those Catholic bishops, like Cardinal Sean Brady in Ireland, who put the reputation of the Church before the protection of children. That sin was not the product of bureaucracy but it was tangled up in deep and distorted notions of clerical clubbishness which routinely privileges the protection of fellow priests before that of the children in their flock. It was not my job, the Cardinal said, but someone else's.

Hannah Arendt did not think that the banality of evil should exculpate Eichmann. Indeed she thought he should hang. So banality does not lessen the blame on those whose complacency or lack of thought produce evil outcomes. John Paul II, desperate to distance himself from Marxist thinking, insisted that structural sin is always 'rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove'. It is in the interests of elites to create rationales for these - in bankers' myths that the market cannot be questioned, or in Rupert Murdoch's wilful hypocrisy about press freedom, or in the Catholic hierarchy's arrogant authoritarianism which elevates a self-serving Sanhedrin thinking that values clericalism, status, secrecy and conformity above the creative values of the gospel.

Rousseau said that evil is 'is a catalogue of mistaken acts that can be rectified in the future.' That imposes on us the moral imperative of self-examination - to make us more morally alert to the ways in which we participate in evil without intending to do so. The banality of evil does not reduce culpability. It adds to it. 

Paul Vallely