The Eichmann Within

By Namit Arora | Dec 2008 | Comments


Hannah Arendt's landmark Eichmann in Jerusalem documents the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi nabbed by the Israeli secret police in Argentina and brought to Jerusalem, where he was tried and executed. Arendt's clear-eyed reportage covered a good deal of the historical and moral territory of the Holocaust. By peering into the heart of a man and a system held synonymous with evil, she examined the very notion of the word: What exactly is the face of evil?

I've also watched (twice) Eyal Sivan's documentary on the trial of Eichmann, The Specialist, much of it courtroom drama that sheds powerful light on the man. Eichmann emerges as a self-absorbed mid-level bureaucrat, neither intelligent nor reflective, devoid of courage, deferential to authority, eager to please his bosses and quick to take pride in a job done well, and with no special antipathy towards Jews. Indeed, he seems quite ordinary in his insecurities, sentimentality, and the capacity to delude himself about his responsibility for the suffering of others.

Arendt's analysis of the banality of evil led Stanley Milgram to devise his now famous experiment to study the harm most ordinary people would willingly (without coercion) do to their fellow humans under a different configuration of power and authority. This is what he found:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Milgram essentially confirmed Arendt's analysis. But today, almost two generations later, have things really changed? One might argue that today "there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience", which might provide a bulwark against such evil. Well, a new study has just "replicated" Milgram's experiment and its findings are not encouraging. It'll be published in American Psychologist next month. For now, we have media reports (including this CNN video):

Replicating one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a Santa Clara University psychologist has found that people will follow orders from an authority figure to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks.

More than two-thirds of volunteers in the research study had to be stopped from administering 150 volt shocks of electricity, despite hearing a person's cries of pain, professor Jerry M. Burger concluded in a study published in the January issue of the journal American Psychologist. "In a dramatic way, it illustrates that under certain circumstances people will act in very surprising and disturbing ways,'' said Burger.

More here (and here). Also check out this TED talk by Philip Zimbardo (23 min), where he discusses both the Milgram experiment and his own famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment which too showed ordinary people willingly turning into monsters, how these studies help explain Abu Ghraib, and his interest in understanding the counterpoint to Arendt's banality of evil, i.e., the banality of heroism.


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