Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is widely misunderstood. I’m not sure I fully grasp it, but here’s my take.
It isn’t that what Eichmann did wasn’t evil; it was. But it was a new form of evil that didn’t quite fit our traditional moral and legal concepts.
And it isn’t that Eichmann wasn’t driven by ideology; he was. He was deeply invested in the Nazi movement, from which he derived the very meaning of his life. Contributing to the movement, carrying out his assigned tasks, playing an important role in something larger than himself, something that demanded great personal sacrifice – all of that was the basis of Eichmann’s identity. He was as fanatical as they come.
What gave Eichmann’s murderous activities the appearance of banality is that they were carried out by means of an interconnected system of bureaus, transportation, labor, manufacturing, architectural design, security, etc. The murders could only be committed thanks to the cooperation of an enormous number of people at all levels of society. Since each person played only one role among many others in bringing them about, it’s difficult to assess responsibility. Everyone and no one is responsible. Eichmann diligently and enthusiastically performed his assigned role in the murder of the Jews, but if he’d been given a different assignment he would have carried that out with just as much commitment and care. That’s the sense in which his evil-doing was banal.
In our tradition, a criminal has the right to be punished. In punishing someone for committing a crime, society recognizes him as a human being who intended to do wrong, rather than an automaton or animal that had no choice. In this way punishment preserves the humanity and dignity of the offender. It says that although he did wrong, we nevertheless share a common humanity in that he is fit to be punished.
But this requires the criminal to be conscious of his guilt. As just one “cog” among tens of millions in the enterprise of administrative evil, the offender was merely carrying out a routine, and may in fact have had the effective moral status of an automaton or a trained animal. The Holocaust, Arendt says, was radically evil, meaning that it had no humanly comprehensible motive. So the offender can’t be punished, with the implication that he can’t be seen as human. To feel guilt for participating in administrative evil we would have to feel responsible for everything done by the collectivity we belong to, perhaps all the way out to the collectivity known as “humanity.” But is that humanly possible?
Oedipus committed the crimes of incest and regicide, although he didn’t know he was doing so. So in Oedipus Rex he blinds himself and Jocasta, his mother and wife, hangs herself. But he didn’t intend to do evil, so why should he be punished for it?
Because of the enormity of the crime. Arendt argued that that was why Eichmann had to hang. In her eyes, Eichmann didn’t demonstrate enough humanity to be worthy of punishment. He could only be put down like a rabid dog.
But that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of justice. There’s an ancient idea that “a great crime offends nature” and that “the earth cries out for vengeance,” and someone must answer for it. Eichmann had to be found guilty of the enormity he helped bring about, whether or not he understood it. We had to treat him as if he possessed moral worth even though he didn’t, and that required executing him as if he were a human being.