“The banality of evil” is such an extraordinarily useful phrase that it’s sometimes easy to forget what, precisely, Hannah Arendt was talking about when she coined it. Arendt, of course, was reporting from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, where one of the key architects of the Holocaust would be put to the test of justice by the Jewish state. What struck Arendt and other observers was the contrast between Hitler’s fiery, paranoid anti-Semitism and Eichmann’s demeanour, which could best be described as belonging to a tranquilized insurance salesman. The disparity between mastermind and underling was obvious and unavoidable.
But more than his simple lack of charisma, for Arendt, was Eichmann’s utter lack of self-reflection about his own role—what she later described as “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” He was able to abet industrialized barbarism because, quite simply, it was beyond his ability to think about what he was doing.
While comparisons to the Holocaust are admittedly best avoided if at all possible, Arendt’s words about Eichmann came back to me with a thud yesterday reading the statement by Ariel Castro in an Ohio courtroom, where he was being sentenced after pleading guilty to over 900 criminal charges for which he will serve life without parole, plus 1,000 years. Every once in a while, it’s possible to admire these kinds of absurd sentences.
First of all, the banality: Of course Castro would try to defend a decade of imprisonment, rape, assault, and starvation to induce miscarriages by saying, “The girls were not virgins. They had multiple sex partners before me.” He didn’t invent slut-shaming, he’s just the most recent criminal to try to justify his actions based on the invented moral category of his victims. What’s horrifying about Castro’s invocation of it isn’t simply that it’s coming from him personally, but that “she had it coming” works so often in crimes against women elsewhere.
That Castro also told the courtroom “I’m just saying that they’re trying to say I’m a violent person and I’m not a violent person” brings us to a very special kind of inability to think. It’s the kind of inability to think that lets a man’s brain file sex without consent as something other than rape. It also lets a man mentally file rape as something other than violence.
So it’s probably a mistake to understand Castro as simply mentally ill, or even simply evil. The judge called it Castro’s “extreme narcissism,” but it’s not synonymous with vanity: Rather, he thinks of himself as a family man and non-violent, and that conception of himself was invincible against something as minor as the evidence from his own eyes and ears as he committed horror after horror.
It’s not novel to note that the foundation of the worst crimes is the dehumanization of the victims—the inability to see them as fully formed people with their own desires and agency, to take them out of the human community and put them instead in the box where they’re most useful for our own desires of gratification or destruction. But before we can do any of that, we have to steel our own sense of self from the evils we’re about to commit. We dehumanize ourselves first.
That evil doesn’t wear a black hat or bellow hate from a podium at Nuremberg. It’s all around us and in all of us, and that was part of what Arendt tried to teach us. The evidence suggests that Castro won’t be the last lesson.