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The Trials of Hannah Arendt

Two nights ago, I went to Margarethe Von Trotta’s new film on the great German Jewish philosopher and intellectual Hannah Arendt. It was definitely worth the price of admission.

Von Trotta centers her narrative on Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the source of her famous concept of the banality of evil.

The film addresses something very important that we should be talking about today, but are not. That is, how to think about, and react to, acts of cruelty and destruction that greatly disturb and frighten us.

Looking back, we can see that the Nuremberg Trials (1945-46) and the Trial of Eichmann (1961) represent two very distinct ways of wrestling with this question.

At Nuremberg, the victors of a terrible war decided that the best response to evil was to reinforce their belief in the rule of law, and in the broader sense, putatively universal  principles  of justice.

The Eichmann Trial, which was set in motion by an illegal kidnapping (or rendition, as we’d call it today), represents a very different impulse: the desire of the aggrieved to localize, personalize, and in the end, tribalize the problem of evil that in our midst.

Whereas the Nuremberg trials called on the world to remember and punish, but to also direct the gaze of the human beings–all human beings–toward what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”, the trial of Eichmann was about circumscribing the limits of suffering on one hand, and inhumanity on the other, making each, if not the exclusive property of a particular group, certainly the de facto possession or marker of one particular group above all others.

Like all spectacles designed primarily to elicit or stoke strong emotional reactions, and from there, enhance the attractiveness of nationalist projects, this one used heavy doses of theatricality (like having Eichmann speak from a glass cage while flanked by armed guards) to achieve its desired effects, techniques have been seamlessly adopted adopted by the stage managers of today’s similarly Manichaean and simplistic “War on Terror”.

Did the Israeli court really believe the unarmed middle-aged German, like the heavily shackled and guarded “defendants” in the kangaroo tribunals of today’s Guantanamo, posed a physical threat to anyone in the room?

Of course they didn’t.

But by putting up the glass barrier—a sort of moral cordon sanitaire—and flanking him with uniformed guards, they were graphically conveying exactly what they wanted to convey: the idea of evil as a sort of virus that provokes epidemics of cruelty in certain morally defective national groups  in certain moments of history

As a universalist, Arendt could not fully accept the underlying premises of the morality play being staged by the state claiming to speak for the ethnic group of her birth. In Eichmann, she saw a man who, like so many others in an age of totalitarianism, had simply lost what she viewed as essential: the ongoing moral dialogue with the self.

You know, someone just like the drone pilot who sits at a console at Creech Air Force Base and “eliminates” or “wastes” several human beings during the course of a day and then goes home and eats Chinese take-out and watches ESPN.

For Arendt, the problem of Eichmann was not primarily about Jews and Germans, but rather mechanistic modernity’s ability to blunt the basic moral impulses of large swathes of mankind.

She also made the “mistake”, which one can never make if one wants to retain a respectable place in a collective defined—as is reflected quite clearly in Israeli law– more by notions of kinship than by voluntaristic concepts of social cohesion, of muddying the distinction between the supposedly ever-righteous “in-group” and the supposedly ever-evil “out group” by pointing out what appears to be quite true: that certain leaders of the Jewish community facilitated the demise of their own people through their active cooperation with Eichmann and the Nazis.

In short, Hannah had the bad taste to put truth above tribe.

Which gets us to an interesting question.

As it is becoming increasingly clear, even to the most willfully obdurate observers, that the US, far from being the force for good in the world they told you it was in school, regularly subjects whomever it wants whenever it chooses to espionage, torture, kidnapping, blackmail and assassination, what do you put first? ….The truth or the tribe?

How we respond individually and collectively to that question will go a long way to determining not only what kind of lives our children will have, but also quite possibly the fate of the world as we know it.

Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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