Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2011 / 6 Kislev, 5772
The banality of evil (cont'd)
By Paul Greenberg
Everything was in order at
When it turned out he didn't, both the saintly coach and the university's hear-no-evil, see-no-evil president were dismissed. The whole, sorry chronicle of their failure to actually do anything about the evil in their midst continues to unfold. The grand jury report made particularly depressing reading.
It's all enough to bring back a comment from a respectable German official that is still tucked away in one of my yellowing files. He said it in the course of one of the war crimes trials that were still going on in
Yes, he told the court, he had witnessed the mass murder the court was investigating. And he had reported it to his superior in
"When I made my report back in
No doubt it was promptly and properly filed. It may still be around somewhere in the archives, gathering dust. The important thing, maybe the only important thing to some, is that the report was made, not what was done about it, if anything.
It's a rule of the modern, bureaucratized state: So long as all the paperwork is in order, then everything is. Alles ist in ordnung. At least on paper. Even after all these years, you can almost hear the German officer's heels click. Jawohl!
Somewhere, no doubt,
Writing about the atrocities at Andersonville during the American Civil War,
One reads what he did
And longs to hang him higher
than Haman hung,
And then one reads what he said
when he was tried
After the war -- and sees the long, heavy face,
The dull fly buzzing stupidly in the trap . . .
Crush out the fly with your thumb
and wipe your hand
You cannot crush the leaden,
The first endorsement, the paper on the desk
Referred by Adjutant Feeble to Captain Dull
For further information and his report.
Some men wish evil and accomplish it
But most men, when they work
in that machine,
Just let it happen somewhere in the wheels.
The fault is no decisive, villainous knife
But the dull saw that is the routine mind.
How blame the cog in the machine, the bureaucrat who did everything the manual says he should, the official acting in his official capacity? And only in his official capacity.
Whether he acted the way a human being should, that is another, less tidy question.
We've all heard the rote excuses that are the bane of everyday life:
"That is our policy."
"That's the way we've been doing it ever since I've been here."
"I only work here."
"It's out of my jurisdiction."
Case closed. Policy followed. Signed, sealed and rubber-stamped. And passed on to no one in particular.
There is no need to inquire further. The law has been followed to the letter. The spirit? "That's not my department." What with all the law's sections, clauses, and sub-paragraphs, how expect it to have room for conscience?
Perhaps the most frightening aspect about the evil discussed, dissected, and debated at the trial of
Another long-delayed trial is about to commence in
The trial in
The important thing is to protect the institution. As for the individual, especially the troublesome sort who ask too many questions, have them file a report and send them on their way. So we can all go home at the end of the day and forget about it.
The banality of evil is scarcely confined to one time or one nation. It is the result, the insignia, the overriding characteristic of the bureaucratized society. And mind.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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