Eichmann in Albuquerque

Karen Adkins

Hannah Arendt’s dissection of the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) has immediately established itself as a philosophical classic. But while “banality of evil” gets regular use outside of her book, its applications are variant enough that it is sometimes difficult to see evil as meaningfully banal. While Eichmann’s actions and culpability get regular historical and philosophic reex- amination,1 the fact that he was part of such a catastrophic genocide as the Holocaust makes it difficult to usefully apply Arendt’s ideas in less extraordinary settings. Despite the distressing continuation of genocide in the post- Eichmann world, most people living in the global north lead lives relatively detached from the reality, experiences and dilemmas accompanying genocide. And while Arendt herself resisted philosophical implications to her analysis, there are also clear hints in the text that her “report” is not merely singular, and that its analysis can and should be extended. I suggest that the paradoxical nature of banal evil is strikingly difficult to apply effectively, in such a way that is actually productive for practical ethical discussion.

Adolf Eichmann is a banal bureaucrat; his actions are typically modest or technical. He organizes the logistics of the evacuation of victims to concentration camps, so he is removed from the direct consequences of his actions. His persona is ordinary and modest; he does not attract attention with his demeanor or his behavior. And yet his actions, in their banality, are still evil. They are predictable; it is not difficult to imagine that managing the transportation of tens of thousands of people to concentration camps will result in their deaths. The consequences are seriously harmful to many. Finally, they are avoidable; as Arendt shows in her text, Eichmann’s choice to join the SS and move up its ranks was not a coerced choice. Recognizing and analyzing the ways in which

K. Adkins (H)

Regis University, Denver, CO, USA © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_2

small, modest and technical actions can lead to predictable, avoidable and serious harms is challenging. Contemporary applications of Arendt tend either to the highly formalistic and removed from daily life, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or the dangerously loose, as in Ward Churchill’s comparison of dead Wall Street workers after 9/11 to “little Eichmanns.”2

Despite its fictional nature, I would propose that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad actually helps us to see the paradox of banal evil in its full flourishing, and in ways that invite ethical engagement and discussion. Most basically, while few people are drug dealers let alone manufacturers, the sheer pervasiveness of the drug trade across the globe means that many people have direct or indirect exposure to it. Importantly, the character trajectory of Walter White fleshes out what Arendt’s text only hints at—the way in which an agent gradually becomes acclimatized and indifferent to banal evil. Reading Breaking Bad against Arendt helps us to see the way in which a tendency toward indifferent and instrumental thinking can develop.

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