Before World War II, Germany had been viewed as one of the world's most civilized nations. They revered literature, music, philosophy, science, and the law. Afterward, one of the great questions was about the ordinary people. How did they become the functionaries of genocide? Who took jobs as concentration camp guards—and kept them? Why did architects sign on to design extermination camps? Who were the contractors who built them? How did the police become the Gestapo?
Otto Adolf Eichmann was one of those ordinary people. He joined the SS, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was not responsible for policy, but he was responsible for carrying it out. He traveled through the European countries that Germany had conquered, locating Jews, counting them, arranging the logistics of rounding them up and of shipping them to concentration camps.
After the war, he escaped to Argentina. He assumed a new name. He got a job at a Mercedes-Benz plant. Still a good bureaucrat, he was promoted to head of his department. Rumors of his location reached Simon Wiesenthal's Nazi hunters. They tracked him down. At the time, Argentina protected war criminals and usually denied extradition. In 1960, Israel sent in Mossad agents to snatch him and smuggle him out. In 1961, he was put on trial.
The New Yorker sent Hannah Arendt to cover it. Her articles turned into the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The idea at the time was that the Nazis were uniquely evil. Monsters. Psychopaths. That Germany was a particularly violent and dangerous tribe that bred demon children.
Arendt saw something very different. "Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a 'monster,' but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise [his trial], and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported."
Eichmann appeared almost bewildered that he'd been charged at all. After all, "He did his duty. He not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law."
Eichmann drove the prosecutor crazy because he "answers all questions with lies." It was a particular kind of lying—with which we have recently become familiar and yet we also find baffling—"he constantly repeated, word for word, the same stock phrases and self-invented cliches (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he thereupon repeated it until it became a cliche)." In Nazi Germany, he "had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann's nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other."
On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump Administration's "zero-tolerance" policy on illegal border crossings. Anyone attempting to cross the US-Mexico border in a manner that was viewed as illegal would be prosecuted. If that person had a child with them, "that child will be separated from you." This was a deliberate, conscious change. We know that, because there's a memo, with a date on it, announcing it. Sessions proclaimed, in a way that echoes Eichmann, that the new rules were "required by law." Which they weren't. It was also imperative to blame the victims, "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border," Sessions said.
We've started to see the pictures of small children weeping as they're taken from their mothers. That even babies feeding at the breast have been snatched. Heard the sobs of five- and six-year-olds crying for their mothers and fathers and also heard the voices of guards mocking their distress. If you were ever lost as a child, imagine the fear. If you're a parent who's ever lost their child for 10 minutes at the supermarket or playground, imagine the pain. No, this government won't—and often can't—tell you when you'll get your child back, how to be reunited, or where they might be.
Every time I hear about this, I wonder who is doing it and how they feel. I'm not talking about the president or the attorney general. The ICE agents. The border patrol. The prosecutors. Judges who put five-year-olds on trial without their parents or attorneys to defend them. Guards at the internment camps. Doing their jobs, their duty, following orders, obeying the law.
We arrive at the banality of evil.
I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is Hitler—though he's expressed the desire to be a dictator (just joking, don't you understand humor?) and his pleasure in hurting those who can't fight back.
I am merely saying that now it is easier for us to understand, because we have our own ordinary folks who carry out the cruel, bizarre, and non-productive attacks on children, the banality of evil, and how normal human beings became the camp guards at Auschwitz.
Arendt's description of Eichmann's relationship to truth tells us much about Sarah Huckabee, Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, Kirstjen Nielsen, Jeff Sessions, and Donald Trump, and how, if they live in a self-referencing bubble, be it a nation or Fox News, reality disappears in relentlessly repeated stock phrases and cliches.
If any of this is to matter, we must return to the banality of evil. Which is to say, ourselves. Do we tolerate? Or fight?
The good news is that is that 10 governors have refused to allow the National Guards of their states to participate. The five living first ladies have condemned the policy. Okay, the statement from Melania, through her spokesperson, says the solution lies with both parties, when the policy is 100-percent Donald and he could fix it with a phone call. Or even a tweet. Or, that when Melania flew to Texas for a sympathy visit, she wore a jacket with the words "I really don't care, do u?" written on the back. American, United, and Frontier airlines all announced they would not carry children separated from their parents by "zero tolerance." One hundred Microsoft employees signed a letter that said, "We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE."
The pressure grew so great that Trump announced a "compassionate" change. His solution is to lock up the parents and children together. In internment camps. Run by private prison companies. Even if that's for years. In his words, "it's still equally tough, if not tougher." Which is the truth part of his statement. If you have guys with guns who can put unarmed children in cages, that's what makes a man tough. He—and his supporters—can still swell with pride over that.