The (New) Banality of Evil
On October 15, 2020, New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior published an essay in the Opinion section of the paper. It was titled, “Rod Rosenstein Was Just Doing His Job.” In it, she used a turn of phrase that caught my attention, Mr. Rosenstein is “a man of a rather banal morality,” with a link to a 2019 article by Jonathan Chait on “The Banal Complicity of Rod Rosenstein” in New York Magazine.
Senior seemed to be attempting to turn a phrase that originated with Hannah Arendt about “the banality of evil” in her book on the early 1960s trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt tried to explain how a colorless bureaucrat — who became physically ill when visiting a concentration camp — could carefully plan and participate in the Final Solution. It was Senior’s dancing around the idea that, frankly, irked me.
Granted, Rod Rosenstein is not an Eichmann nor was the Trump immigration policy at the level of the Holocaust, but the policy that he aided and abetted was evil. Its evilness is evident in its pure cruelty. There were no advance pronouncements warning migrant parents that they would be separated from their children upon reaching the US. There were no warning signs saying, “child separation ahead — all entering beware.” The Trump Administration developed, planned, and executed the policy of putting children in cages and separating them from their parents in secret. The inescapable conclusion is that they sought to harm these children and bring anguish to their parents — not deter people from entering the US no matter what was the motivation. The object was cruelty, simple cruelty.
Let’s not dilute the original language with euphemisms here. Arendt dissected Eichmann’s defense that his actions were to preserve his position rather than fanaticism. The same seems to apply to Rosenstein. The applicable term is not the “morality of evil.” Let’s respect Arendt’s profound thinking and apply the term that fits the situation.
“The banality of evil” fits.