In the Spring of 1961, Hannah Arendt sat in a courtroom in Jerusalem observing the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was a notorious war criminal, an S.S. officer responsible for coordinating the transportation of millions of souls to death camps across Europe. Israeli Intelligence agents tracked him to Argentina, kidnapped him and flew him to Israel for a trial.
Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher who had fled the Third Reich, was one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the politics of the 20th century. Her first book, a massive tome on The Origins of Totalitarianism, described its mechanisms — terror, fear, propaganda — and its origins — nationalism and imperialism. She saw it as the embodiment of what Immanuel Kant called “radical evil.” But sitting in that courtroom, she felt something in the foundations of her thought crumble. Eichmann wasn’t a vicious monster, eager to shed blood and lick it off his hands. He was a bureaucrat. A paper-pusher. Not Dracula, but Mr. Magoo.
This shocked Arendt, and sent her in search of language that could adequately describe the phenomenon. She landed on the phrase “the banality of evil,” which doesn’t dismiss the depths of evil itself as banal, but — far more terrifying — exposes the possibility that social and political realities can make the stomach-churning horrors of Nazi death camps a mere function of the state. They can happen without passion, without malice, with indifference. Not only that, as Eichmann himself testified, these social and political conditions can make someone believe that the horrors they commit are for the greater good.
While comparisons to Nazism are often overblown, I couldn’t help but hear the phrase “the banality of evil” as I watched each video exposing the trade of aborted children’s body parts by Planned Parenthood. A woman sips wine and munches on a salad while describing “less crunchy” techniques for extracting a baby from a womb. Another haggles over the prices of children’s organs and jokes that she wants a Lamborghini. Another shouts, “It’s a boy,” and proceeds to tear it limb from limb. Another recounts a woman who thought it was cool that she can stop and start a baby’s heart before cutting through his face to extract his brain.
These would be unspeakable horrors in any other context, but somehow, in our world today, these are acceptable. As Arendt described it in The Life of the Mind, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence." In other words, by manipulating language, we can insulate ourselves from reality.
This happens all the time in politics and war. In Soviet Russia, dissidents weren’t “executed.” They simply became “non-persons.” In modern war, we don’t talk about the “death of innocents.” We talk about “collateral damage.” Young black men are “thugs.” People seeking refuge from despotic governments are “illegals,” and their children are “anchor babies.” Such insulating language makes it easy to talk about mass deportation — ignoring the conditions those souls would be subjected to once they returned — or as one presidential candidate suggested, bombing the caves along the border that immigrants use for shelter.
Likewise, in the practice of abortion, we don’t talk about “dead babies,” we talk about “aborted fetuses” and the “products of conception.” We don’t talk about “organ harvesting,” but “tissue donation.” We don’t talk about “heads,” but “calvarium.”
For Eichmann, the death camps were not about mass murder, but about “manufacturing corpses.” The “Final Solution” was couched in thick layers of jargon, masking its sinister purposes in the dull language of bureaucracy. This kept the stark, murderous reality at a safe cognitive distance, enabling (as Arendt described it) a “remoteness from reality” and “thoughtlessness.”
Arendt’s account of the trial was titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. After its publication, some misinterpreted Arendt, believing that her assessment of Eichmann as a banal and bumbling bureaucrat was too dismissive of the horrors of his crimes. But that misunderstands Arendt’s point. She means to take nothing away from the horrors of what Eichmann had done. Rather she means to root it not in the persona of a cartoon villain — a move that makes Eichmann something other than ordinary and human — but in the actions of an unimpressive man who chose not to judge, not to think about what he was doing. He wrapped himself in the comforting insulation of official language, in following orders, in a sense of inevitable progress and “history,” and went about his business of coordinating the schedule of dozens of trains as they crisscrossed Europe, carting men, women and children to their deaths.
Later, Arendt wrote of Eichmann, “I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behaviour as well as in his behaviour during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.’
We make a mistake if we see the monstrosity of the videos and label the doctors themselves (or their supporters) as monstrous. Instead, we need to see their first crime — the root of all the others — is a bland acceptance of the dehumanizing stock phrases and clichés of the pro-choice movement. Deborah Nucatola and her Planned Parenthood colleagues are not stupid. Nor are they cartoon villains — as villainous as those videos might make them seem. Rather, they have imbibed the language of the pro-choice movement, the disenchanted language that looks at bodies and refuses to assign them any meaning beyond being “products of conception.”
Again, don’t mistake me. These language games are nothing less than an attempt to be like God, to make meaning with our words other than the meaning assigned at Creation when God said “Let us make humanity in our image.”
Accepting these language shifts doesn’t mean you’re a sociopath, but it does mean you’re thoughtless. One must refuse the plain observation that a dead human being lies before them. They must choose not to think, wrap themselves in delusional language and carry out their murderous acts.
The burden for our culture starts on this ground: Are we willing (to borrow another phrase from Arendt) to “think what we are doing?” Are we willing to cut through the cloud of jargon and re-examine something most of us have become comfortable living with? Are we willing to judge? Because maybe, if those of us who are pro-life are right, our culture has committed a colossal moral outrage, and the bloodshed needs to stop.