On the Banality of Evil and "Little Eichmanns"

The term “little Eichmanns” was first used by Ward LeRoy Churchill in 2001, a political activist and a former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In a controversial essay which later cost him his job, Churchill used the term in the sense of “a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire … to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved”. Those “inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers” were not as innocent as we think, he argued, but complicit in the crimes their government committed in Iraq and elsewhere. 

“Little Eichmanns” was an obvious homage to Hannah Arendt’s canonical book Eichmann in Jerusalem which covered the trial of the Nazi collaborator Adolph Eichmann, and her concept of the banality of evil. For Arendt, the trouble with Eichmann was that “so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal”. “From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment”, she concluded, “this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together”. 

Needless to say, the analogy Ward Churchill was trying to establish between the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the victims of 9/11 attacks requires too much of a stretch of imagination – bordering on obscenity, one might say. Still, the term “little Eichmanns” is quite useful in terms of making sense of the current rise of populist authoritarianism and the global appeal of strongmen, from Putin and Erdoğan to Orbán, Modi, Kaczyński, even Trump. It is not only that all these leaders enjoy considerable popular support, whether democratically elected or not. It is also that they are often a symptom rather than a cause, the manifestation of a conservative-reactionary backlash, part of a zeitgeist which encapsulates entire societies, not just a select few.

Little Eichmanns are everywhere. The media mogul who caves in to the demands of the strongman to further his/her business interests… The academic who becomes a senior advisor to the strongman to whitewash his reputation… The journalist who hides or distorts facts to mislead the public opinion in line with acceptable “facts”… The mobs who take to the streets following the leader’s orders… The silent majorities who turn a blind eye to the steady erosion of rights and freedoms out of fear, apathy or sheer interest…

Like the “original” Eichmann, little Eichmanns are “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. They go to work; they take holidays; they gossip; they follow the extramarital affairs of their favourite stars; they watch a soccer game or the latest box office hit; oh and, they tweet! They rally round a hashtag… Until the next “national” crisis that is. Then they simply rally round the flag. 

Yet as Arendt reminds us, even if “it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and Support are the same”

Comparing populist authoritarians to the Nazis, or today’s electorates to yesterday’s Eichmanns, also requires a stretch of imagination, one might retort. It is not possible to live in a constant state of emergency, one might remark. And yet for those who have to bear the brunt of the likes of Trump, Putin or Erdoğan, there is no life outside of the state of emergency. The “immigrant” who is barred from entering the U.S. at the airport, the dissident who is harassed by Putin’s thugs, the journalist or the academic who is sent to prison for simply doing his/her job in Erdoğan’s Turkey do not have the luxury of watching a soccer game or a movie. What they need is not a hashtag – though this matters too – but our support, our solidarity. They need their voices to be heard, their plight to be constantly reminded. 

It is in this spirit that these articles will be written.

* I wish the Ahval team good luck. In this world of “post-truth” and “fake news”, their job will not be easy.