The horrible murder of George Floyd happened in the U.S. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, two ordinary men P Jeyaraj and his son J Fenix were brutally murdered. While 0racism was an attributing factor in the first case, the second one doesn’t seem to have a caste angle. The only commonality is that both saw the use of brutal force by the police. The Indian case was so brutal and horrendous that we ask the question, “How can they do something like this?”
There are a lot of demands of justice in both these cases. In the case of George Floyd, the police officers are already named in the murder charge sheets. I hope the same will happen in India too. But this can’t and shouldn’t stop there. There is a constant demand in the U.S. with movements like #BlackLivesMatter. In India too, there is a demand for the systemic reform of mechanisms like the police system. But one of the dangers is that the system will delay the process of punishments to the police officers that the question of systemic reform will be forgotten.
Adolf Eichmann is one of the most studied personalities connected to the Holocaust and World War II. “He was tasked by the Nazis with facilitating and managing the logistics involved in the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II.” He was captured by Israel in 1960 and later executed in 1962.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt has studied him and brought a very powerful idea called “banality of evil”. Banality means the ordinary nature. Thomas Wiley says that Arendt’s question was “Can one do evil without being evil?” and her matured response in 1971 was,
“I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer [i.e. Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”
While accepting the horrendous nature of crimes of Eichmann, Arendt was confident that he was not evil and there was something else that led to the crime. She was critiqued by many, who stated that she failed to see the radically evil side of the person. A handwritten letter by Eichmann (published only in 2016) to the Israel president of 1962 appealing for clemency (two days before his execution) is worth reading.
“There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders, I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.”
There is no conclusion of the nature of evil in Eichmann. Eichmann may or may not have been an ordinary person before — we never know. But one thing Arendt attempted to show was that evil could be committed by ordinary people in extreme circumstances. The conclusion, I derive from her, is not that people like Eichmann are innocent, but a call for systemic reforms to avoid any tendencies of polarization (be it caste phobia, race phobia, homophobia, etc.) and to make systems accountable (be it police, army, bureaucrats or leaders of any kind).
“What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in 1971 at Stanford University” under Prof. Philip G. Zimbardo.
It was conducted in a simulated prison setting, where a group of young healthy males were randomly divided into guards and prisoners, and they wanted to see the effects on the prisoners after two weeks. Ex-prisoners acted as consultants to make sure that the situation looked real. All the guards and prisoners entered completely into their roles; prisoners suffered terribly; some guards became extremely cruel in their roles; the experiment had to be stopped after six days. One of the prisoners kept in solitary confinement for several hours had given this reaction two months after the study,
“I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison — because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me — was remote until finally I wasn’t that, I was 416. I was really my number.”
Though the study is criticized by many people and it was done to study the effects on prisoners, one of the surprising conclusions was about the guards. The system converted some ordinary people who are guards (not all) to evil-incarnates. This has to be remembered that they only experienced this system for six days.