The banality of evil

A decade or so ago, I wrote a story in which the hero tries to stop a villain drawing power from sites steeped in evil. The hero succeeds only when she realizes the bad guy’s real power source: Apathy, the lack of caring that enables so much of the world’s evil.
For a lot of reasons I was never able to get the story to work, though I might go back to it someday. But I thought of the story during the movie I watched yesterday, a 2006 documentary called Deliver Us From Evil.
The movie is about Father O’Grady, a Catholic priest with an Irish brogue, a twinkle in his eye (if it were a forties movie, he’d be Barry Fitzgerald) and a long career as a sexual predator who abused both boys and girls. The movie also shows how the church authorities responded to reports by shunting O’Grady to a new parish, then another new parish, never acknowledging the problem, never warning his new flock about his predilections, and doing their best to protect him and the church from law enforcement. The priest eventually did some time and is now retired in Ireland on a church pension, which the film alleges was hush money to keep O’Grady from naming names of his enablers.
When I read of things like this, I tend to think of the church authorities as cold, callous creeps, totally unmoved by children’s suffering when it interferes with the greater good of the Church. I have the same feeling about the Ford executives back in the sixties who refused to recall or modify Ford Pintos after learning they could explode in a collision (the rationale was that the costs of any lawsuits against the company would be less than the cost of fixing the problem).
Maybe I’m wrong. The officials we see in Deliver Us From Evil aren’t cold and arrogant, they’re nervous and uncomfortable, desperate to deflect questions: No, I don’t think I did anything to help Father O’Grady escape punishment! No, if the police weren’t told about his history, that was the lawyer’s decision, I didn’t have any say in it! And so on.
Which brings me to the title of this post. Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the attitude of so many Nazis implicated in the Final Solution. Rather than hardcore fanatics eager for genocide, they were just people who took the path of least resistance: Soldiers who preferred death-camp guard duty to being posted to the Eastern Front, bureaucrats who knew that expediting the genocide would be good for their careers, death camp commanders who could have a thousand Jews executed, then grumble about all the paperwork that was involved.
Perhaps the same sort of mentality is at work in the Pinto case and the child-abuse scandal (no, that is not the same as saying Catholic bishops or Ford executives are the equivalent of Nazis, only that the banality of their actions was very similar). Suppose you’re a Ford exec at the time: You know it’s not like every person who drives a Pinto is going to die. Maybe it’ll only be one or two. But you’re absolutely certain your bosses will be furious if you cost them money by pushing for a recall. It’s not that you want people to die, it’s just … easier.
Same thing with the Church. I’m sure none of O’Grady’s superiors thought child abuse was a good thing. But they could probably tell themselves that maybe this time he’d get it under control. And it would cause so much trouble if the truth came out. It would be bad for the Church, which is God’s instrument. It would be bad for the career of anyone who brought shame upon the Catholic church. So why not wait, see if things somehow work out. Why do anything irrevocable now?
Or maybe they knew perfectly well that O’Grady was an open sore on the face of humanity, scarring the lives of innocent people, but they weren’t about to stick their neck out and say so when the hierarchy wanted the problem to disappear. Or tell the Ford board of directors that these fatal accidents had to be stopped.
So they told themselves there was nothing else they could do. And if they had any nagging voices whispering in their head that they were on the wrong side, they tuned them out.
It’s why they say all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
The good news is, sometimes good men do do something; as Arendt pointed out, anyone could have joined the Final Solution—but not everyone. Some Germans refused to participate and paid the price. In Bulgaria, a Nazi ally, national leaders such as Dimitri Peshev stood up and refused to let Bulgarian Jews be destroyed (though the country remained on the Axis side throughout the war).
The bad news is, so many other don’t. To paraphrase Rod Serling, there are those among us who’d like to turn the world into a grave. And there are too many people who are willing to be the gravediggers.


Filed under Movies, Personal, Politics, Short Stories

4 responses to “The banality of evil

  1. Pingback: The Dark Side or the banality of evil reconsidered « Fraser Sherman’s Blog

  2. Pingback: The Penn State case, and other links, including some for writers « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: And still I rise … « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: Just a link or two | Fraser Sherman's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.