Monday, February 20, 2006

"The Banality of Evil"

Last night I watched Rony Brauman and Eyal Sivan's The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal. (IMDB link) (Wikipedia link on Eichmann) It disturbed me a great deal, and I'm not sure how to think through my reaction to it.

The documentary presents footage from the trial of Lieutenant colonel SS Adolf Eichmann's trial for crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people, among others. Eichmann was the official in charge of forced Jewish emigration and later of the logistics of moving Jewish people towards concentration camps, where they were brutalized as a matter of course and often then killed, particularly late in the war, as a matter of policy. Some of the questions at stake in the trial included: how much did Eichmann know about the Final Solution? how much power did he have to offer alternative policies? how personally anti-Semitic was he? did he understand the murderous consequences of his actions?

Eichmann answered all of these questions (during the selected footage, mind you) with legalisms, bureaucratic flowcharts, and realpolitik arguments. While arguments and testimonies were made, he smiled bitterly within his bullet-proof glass enclosure, turning the pages of his documents.

Eichmann, effectively kidnapped to stand trial in Israel for crimes against the Jewish people, actually tried to defend his actions. The trials of Slobodan Milosevich and Saddam Hussein offer very different lessons. I used to hope that Osama bin Laden could be brought to justice, so that a trial would reveal his crimes. These days, I'm beginning to believe that a chaotic firefight might provide a better end for those guilty of warcrimes. The Nuremberg trials were just barely not "victors' justice," and Eichmann's trial just barely not long-delayed revenge. Milosevich and Hussein, by refusing to participate in their own trials, expose some of the frailities in the idealism of the ICC (to take one international framework).

To answer the obvious: Yes, there was part of me that wondered how John Yoo would behave in a similar trial. No, I haven't read Arendt's book (although now I'm much more interested in doing so), nor have I read her critics. Yes, I agree that the Holocaust was an atrocity on such a scale to make Milosevich and Hussain mere haterz by comparison.


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