The banality of evil (Boston Marathon bombing)

A death in Milwaukee last week got me thinking about the nature of evil.

Patrick Kennedy (NOT evil), the Milwaukee police detective to whom serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (evil) confessed his heinous crimes, died last Thursday of an apparent heart attack.  According to quotes in his obituary taken from various interviews, people sometimes told Kennedy that, in his work with Dahmer, he had looked evil “squarely in the eye.”

Kennedy disagreed:

I can’t say that I really did, because when I looked at Jeffrey Dahmer, what surprised me the most during the six weeks I talked to him was how very much like you and me he really was.

I mean, I had breakfast with him and lunch with him, and I would bring the paper in and show him what the people were saying about him.  It sounds weird that we became friends, but we were kind of friendly.  We were friends.  I actually kind of started to like the guy and feel sorry for him.  He was a pathetic soul.

Jeffrey Dahmer committed his crimes here in Milwaukee.  I vividly recall reading excerpts of Dahmer’s confession in the local newspaper at the time of his trial.  What struck me almost as much as the gruesomeness of his acts was the stark contrast between the horrific murders Dahmer was describing and the simple, matter-of-fact way he described them.  What I “heard” in the transcripts was the voice of a boy.  Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who killed and cannibalized 17 young men and boys, sounded . . . rather lost and naïve.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase originated by Hannah Arendt while covering Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial for The New Yorker.  The term also appears in the title of her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt was talking about banality at a systemic level more than at an individual one.  But for me the concept has also always resonated as relevant when applied to an individual apart from the societal context.

My “feel” for the phrase arises from Stanley Milgram’s brilliant exploration of individual agency in “The Perils of Obedience.”  Milgram’s famous 1973 essay  recounts the unsettling results of a psychology experiment in which a “teacher” was instructed to deliver an electrical shock to a “learner,” hidden behind a screen, every time the “learner” answered a question incorrectly.  With each additional wrong answer, the intensity of the electrical shock would increase incrementally.  No electrical shocks were actually delivered, though.  The “learner” who issued anguished cries of pain from behind the screen was merely an actor.

Ostensibly, the experiment’s purpose was to observe the effects of punishment on learning.  However, its real goal was to see how far a “teacher” would go in delivering escalating amounts of electricity to the “learner.”  If a “teacher” asked permission to stop, the experimenter replied, “No, the experiment requires you to go on.  Please continue.”  The clear implication was that to end the experiment prematurely would invalidate it completely.

“Teachers” had strange and widely varying reactions to the experimenter’s command to continue.  Some became officious in their administration of the shocks.  Some were distraught but still kept sending the required shocks to the learner.  One man began laughing uncontrollably.  In the first experiment, 25 out of 40 subjects continued to follow the experimenter’s directive until they had administered 450 volts (the most potent level on the generator) for the third time.  At this point, the experimenter ended the session.

Only a small percentage of “teachers” had the wherewithal simply to refuse the order to deliver additional shocks once they felt that the intensity had become too much for the hidden “learner” to bear.  (Read the essay.  It is excellent preparation for acting in a way you could be proud of should you ever find yourself caught up in similarly conflicting circumstances :))

Milgram did a follow-up interview/questionnaire a year later with the man who could not stop laughing.  Identified as “Mr. Braverman” in the essay, the man said that the experience had taught him something very important:

What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the value of a memory experiment, even after it became clear that continued adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value, i.e., don’t hurt someone who is helpless and not hurting you.  As my wife said, “You can call yourself Eichmann.”  I hope I deal more effectively with any future conflicts of values I encounter.

Building on that remark, Milgram concludes that Hannah Arendt was right.  Adolf Eichmann, one of the main forces behind the Holocaust, was not a “sadistic monster,” after all—despite the urgent need everyone instinctively felt to believe otherwise.

Somehow it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted personality, evil incarnate.  After witnessing hundreds of ordinary persons submit to the authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. . . .

Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he only had to sit at a desk and shuffle papers.  At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above.  Thus there is fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act.  The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated.  Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.

Arendt was talking about socially-organized evil when she described it as “banal,” and Milgram’s reference also refers to Arendt’s meaning because of the “obedience” factor in his experiment.  In a context involving authority and a separation of responsibility from action, people will be reluctant to assert themselves and will rationalize that they are only the instrument and not the actor.

But I think the banality of evil goes beyond that.

One week ago, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  As we all now know, two immigrant brothers were identified as suspects and a massive manhunt ensued.  The older brother was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, and the younger was arrested after an intensive door-to-door search during a citywide lockdown.

What I keep returning to in the aftermath—especially on the heels of reading Patrick Kennedy’s obituary and recalling how strangely ordinary and “lost” Jeffrey Dahmer sounded to me in his confession—is the aghast collective reaction of stunned disbelief from people who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

According to a story posted on Slate Sunday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev returned to the campus of the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth after the Boston Marathon bombings.  He attended classes and went to a party.

“He was just relaxed,” the unnamed witness said. Tsarnaev led such a typical student life after the bombing that even after his photo was released as a suspect, some who knew him didn’t make the connection. “We made a joke like—that could be Dzhokhar,” said a 22-year-old resident assistant at the dorms where Tsarnaev lived. “But then we thought it just couldn’t be him. Dzhokhar? Never.”

According to an article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the UMass–Dartmouth campus was evacuated as a precaution once it became clear that Tsarnaev was a suspect, and his dorm room was searched for possible bombs.  A young woman who lived in that dorm expressed the same confusion as others when interviewed.  So many of the terrible things that happen, from terrorist attacks to mass-shootings by social outcasts, are connected with people who appear to have a screw loose, she said.  In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she was at a loss for an explanation:

You usually get an indication of somebody you shouldn’t be around. Now that that is shattered, what do you do?  Am I supposed to start worrying about going to school?  Am I supposed to stop going to college?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  Clearly there’s a disconnect between the person everyone knows (or thinks they know) and the person who is suspected of killing and maiming so many people last week.  That’s what’s so puzzling.

And troubling.

How could someone who seems so ordinary, so like the rest of us, be capable of such horrifying action?

The true dimensions of evil may be beyond our comprehension.   It may be that humankind is capable in equal measure not only of more greatness but also of more evil than we care to imagine.

Heroes often downplay their courageous deeds.  “I just did what anyone would have done in the situation,” they say, implying that they are just ordinary folks who rose to the occasion.  Is it possible that the monsters among us are likewise just ordinary folks . . . who sank to the occasion?

And that such rising and falling are both common and predictable, i.e., banal?

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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8 Responses to The banality of evil (Boston Marathon bombing)

  1. Fabulous insights. Sad, but very true.


  2. Doly says:

    I found this page looking whether somebody had already put on the Internet what I had been already thinking: That the Boston suspect could be, both at the same time, guilty and a rather ordinary and mostly nice 19-year-old.

    Since I read about the Milgram experiment, I’ve been wondering this: Let’s suppose a psychopath did an exact repeat of the experiment, with one key difference: that the “teachers” would be actually killing innocent victims. Let’s suppose that, as in the Milgram experiment, somewhat more than half the people went ahead. Let’s imagine then that this case went to trial. With our current laws, it looks to me like the psychopathic researcher would get a lighter sentence than the actual killers… even though the actual killers would be just ordinary people that had the bad luck of going through some extraordinary pressure, and failed to rise to the occasion.

    The trial of Dzokhar Tsarnaev is probably one of the closest examples we are going to see of how the law would treat this hypothetical legal case. I suspect it’s probably not good for him. Whatever the result of the trial, the bigger question remains: how should one treat somebody who has been influenced to kill? Has this shown a yet-undiscovered flaw, and that justifies a life sentence? It seems a little harsh. (Imagine it was YOU in the Milgram experiment). On the other hand, it hardly seems a good idea to let people free after they killed somebody. I feel pretty sure that there are killers that are genuinely far more dangerous than the average person, and should be imprisoned for life, for everybody else’s safety. How could one tell the difference between such a killer and an ordinary person who has the bad luck to become a killer?


    • Wow, thank you for your insightful comments! You raise really intriguing questions. One troubling thing about politics, society, human nature is that everyone seems only too willing to punish a scapegoat without the willingness to really struggle with the gray areas of justice. You know, let’s hurry up and unleash our fury and fear on this person so that we can all get back to normal as quickly as possible.

      White collar crime wreaks terrible upheaval, with seriously debilitating (eventually deadly?) consequences, but maybe it’s too complicated and time-consuming to deal with so those people go unpunished. It’s kind of amazing that Eichmann paid for his war crimes, but then Israel and Mossad had a tenacity and resolve rarely seen.

      I’ve twice now read and taught a classic bestselling novel from the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It’s a book rich in ideas and very relevant to our own times. One of the characters is a judge who hates having to administer justice. He gets sick to his stomach because it’s so hard to sift through all factual details and see the case from all perspectives and then to apply the law to someone who, for instance, has had the bad luck to become a killer. Everyone respects this character; because he hates to make such life-altering decisions, because he hates knowing that he has such power over other people’s lives and that a wrong decision will have terrible effects on someone who deserves better, he is very, very good at administering justice. But at what personal cost to him! If I were caught up in a criminal/legal situation, I would desperately hope to have a judge like this one. But my fear is I’d get someone looking for an easy way out of the mire.

      You know those posters with the pretty photos and upbeat, inspirational quotes on the bottom? I saw a parody once from that said: “Mediocrity: It takes a lot less time and most people won’t notice the difference until it’s too late.” Not to sound overly cynical, but doesn’t it sometimes seem that mediocrity is the primary operating mode for much of humanity, much of the time?

      The people whose lives were ruined in the Boston Marathon bombing deserve justice. If someone I loved one were killed or maimed, I’d be VERY hungry for vengeance. Vengeance comes naturally; justice is hard.


  3. Pingback: “Banality of Evil”-Arendt | The Art of Polemics

  4. Pingback: Boston Marathon, one year later | Katherine Wikoff

  5. simplyivy says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful articles. It seems that once you divorce responsibility from one’s actions, it’s a slippery road from there onwards. For those ordinary folks who rise to the occasion, they felt a responsibility to do something within their capacity. For those who sank to the occasion, they discarded their responsibility, dissociating it from their actions and transferring it to a “higher” authority. And you’ve made a good distinction between those “influenced” to kill as an agent, so to speak, and the unseen masterminds who are actually the principal in the act. But to unravel the complexities of these would be too much for most. Revenge is visceral. Justice is divine. Hence to perform justice requires man to consider things widely and beyond what is obvious at one level. The story of the judge is a good example of what it takes of a man to perform justice. It is not easy. But like you, that’s certainly the judge I would like to have preside over matters, especially of life and death.


    • Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response! I think your characterization of people’s rising and sinking to the occasion I terms of “responsibility” is exactly right. We all have that voice inside of us that tells us what our responsibility is in a situation. Sometimes I envy people who seem able to ignore that voice. Facing up to one’s responsibility can be hard.


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