The New Americanism: The Eichmann Syndrome


By Don Monkerud

February 07, 2005

From the American Conservative magazine to the Smirking Chimp website, views on 9/11 consequences are starting to converge. Here is a short sharp meditation from the latter source to remind us once more that we are here. – Editor

As the world mourns the anniversary of the Holocaust, we continue to wonder how one of the most advanced countries in the world could commit such an atrocity. We forget that the slaughter didn’t occur overnight but took years to set up. Little by little individuals assuaged their consciences and found it advantageous to go along with authority, committing a number of small acts, ultimately culminating in genocide.

Anyone with a smattering of awareness today questions the path down which our leaders are taking us. Consider the direction. As America pursues an aggressive military policy-Bush’s preemptive strike-invading Iraq and Afghanistan, threatening to bomb Iran and North Korea, and imposing our economic form of corporate democracy around the world, Americans are becoming more nationalistic and more willing to support acts we considered totally unacceptable in the past.

Today our government invades our privacy and mounts the most comprehensive collection of personal data and tracking system of citizens in history. Thousands of cameras observe us. New cars have chips that allow us to be tracked. The military engages in domestic spying and Congress is days away from appointing an Attorney General who justifies torture-newly defined as anything short of death.

Our bombs have killed up to 100,000 people in Iraq and we justify our continued occupation as “bringing democracy to the world.” President Bush won the election based on “strong leadership,” and surrounds himself with Federalist Society lawyers who believe in the supreme power of the president. Congress promises to dismantled our social programs and allow us to compete against corporations and the wealthy, who already own 85 percent of the nation’s assets. Giant corporations such as SBC and AT&T are allowed to merge, lay off 25,000 workers, and control our public utilities. Republicans muscle laws through Congress to benefit the rich, while increasing funds for domestic spying, the military and a narrowly defined “moral agenda.”

Patriotism transforms into national chauvinism-against “old Europe” and the rest of the world-and even those opposed to the Iraq military adventure support “our troops.” Environmental laws are dismantled. Religious faith replaces common sense and science. Our Secretary of Defense justifies using atomic weapons on the battlefield. Republicans who railed against Clinton “lying,” ignore Bush’s lies about WMD and change congressional rules that would allow an indicted Tom DeLay to retain his leadership position. The American people remain quiescent, good citizens, fulfilling their primary role as consumers. Are we in danger of becoming like Adolf Eichmann?

Eichmann is relevant today because he illustrates how ordinary people incrementally change until they are capable of perpetuating atrocities. A devoted bureaucrat who efficiently organized German transportation during WW II, Eichmann fled to Argentina with the help of the Catholic Church, was kidnapped in 1960 and put on trial in Israel for war crimes. He turned out to be what we would call “an ordinary Joe.”

In Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, David Cesarani reveals that Eichmann didn’t particularly hate Jews, wasn’t violent, and wasn’t interested in politics. He joined the Nazi party because he was a social climber; he played the violin regularly and knew Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. As an employee of a Jewish-owned petroleum firm in the 1920s, he adopted a corporate mentality and learned management skills. Thomas Laqueur, in the London Review of Books, describes him as “irremediably boring,” a man who “held no independent views and initiated nothing; he had no thoughts worthy of the name.”

Eichmann represents what Hanna Arendt described as the “banality of evil,” in other words, easily identifiable monsters don’t necessarily commit genocide; they are ordinary, everyday people who accept things as they are with an uncritical mind. Eichmann simply slid into his role of organizing timetables and managing transportation logistics and was soon directing millions to the death camps.

Today we dismiss the evil deeds of the Nazis as the product of authoritarian and evil men. But Lanqueur quotes Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher, who pointed out that Eichmann combined “skills which are typical of a highly industrialized society with irrational and anti-rational beliefs… at the same time enlightened and superstitious, proud to be an individualist and in constant fear of not being like all the others, jealous of his independence and inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.”

While we are not Nazis yet, Americans appear blind to the irrational justifications that are leading us to engage in a holy crusade that bodes well for no one. Will we continue to allow a minority, driven by irrational and anti-rational Christian beliefs, to transform our society? Or will our acquiescence lead us one day to find ourselves marching beside Adolf Eichmann?

Copyright 2005 Don Monkerud

Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows politics.


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