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Some thoughts on the banality of evil, inspired by a conversation with Jean-Paul Brodeur

Samuel Tanner
Traduction de Steven Sacks
Cet article est une traduction de :
Réflexion autour de la banalité du mal inspirée d’une conversation avec Jean-Paul Brodeur [fr]


Si la notoriété de Jean-Paul Brodeur est en grande partie due à ses recherches sur la police, il est un autre domaine, plus méconnu du grand public, qui le passionnait et le fascinait, à savoir les formes extrêmes de violence, dont le génocide et le crime contre l’humanité. Dans le cadre de cet article, je prolonge un dialogue que nous avions entamé avec Jean-Paul à propos du concept de banalité du mal, développé par Hannah Arendt. En particulier et à partir des contextes yougoslave et rwandais, je propose une extension de cette notion appliquée non pas tant ici aux fonctionnaires et bureaucrates, tels qu’ils constituaient le centre d’attention de la philosophie, alors concentrée sur l’Holocauste, mais bien plutôt des exécuteurs de terrain. Cette réflexion préliminaire révèle que la notion de banalité du mal peut être déclinée en quatre formes caractérisant la participation des exécuteurs ; soit la banalité de la similitude, de la familiarité, de l’idée et enfin de répétition.

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1While Jean-Paul Brodeur is primarily known for his research on policing, his real passion and fascination, unbeknownst to the public, was for quite another subject — the Holocaust and extreme forms of violence such as genocide and crimes against humanity. This article will explore this largely unknown interest of Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul’s thoughts on extreme criminality — or “administrative criminality”, in the words of Hannah Arendt, a thinker whose writings he was deeply attracted to — helped orient my doctoral research, supervised by Jean-Paul and completed in 2008, on the participation of military bands in the mass violence of the Balkans in the 1990s.

  • 1 Although based on observations in Rwanda, the ideas developed in this article are discussed in grea (...)

2In January 2010, I was hired as a professor in the University of Montreal’s School of Criminology, and the roots of this article can be traced back to a presentation I made, several weeks after my hiring, in the International Centre for Comparative Criminology seminar series. My presentation was on my postdoctoral research, conducted in the United States in 2009, on the participation of armed bands in the mass violence in Balkans of the 1990s, following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. My sequential analysis revealed similarities in the ways the Serb and Hutu executioners participated in mass violence. In particular, I described how, independently of geographic or political context, recruitment into mass violence comprised at least six stages or decision points, and how this finding shed new light on the radicalisation of participants in mass violence.1 These stages culminate in a trivialization of practices, i.e. the trivialization of acts that in most cases were already familiar to participants, even if they had never practised them outside of their daily routines.

3Jean-Paul attended this presentation, which immediately triggered a discussion of the place of banality. Of course, Arendt’s famous thesis, developed in her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was at the heart of our conversation, and Jean-Paul suggested that we re-explore it in light of contemporary mass murders, especially the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing of the ex-Yugoslavia. But the omnipresent “you should” of my doctoral studies was now replaced by a “we might” that suggested the possibility of collaboration and joint publication. We sought an angle or perspective to attack the problem from, and every day we took a few minutes to discuss ideas that had recently come to us. But a few weeks later, we all learned of his death. I thought it important that the reflection we had started should continue — albeit as an imperfect solo rather than the initial duet — and this article presents some initial hypotheses on this subject. Firstly, I will summarize the central elements of the concept of the banality of evil. Secondly, I will provide a detailed analysis, based on our dialogue, of Jean-Paul’s interest in Arendt’s thesis. Lastly, I will present an extension of the thesis of the banality of evil, which I will link to events in the ex-Yugoslavia of the 1990s and to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil

4The thesis of the banality of evil is based on a series of observations by Hannah Arendt during her coverage of the April 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of the deportation of Jews to the Third Reich death camps, for the New Yorker. Eichmann faced 15 charges for war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and crimes against humanity, and the trial lasted four months. He was condemned to death — a sentence reserved for cases of genocide — and was executed on May 31, 1962, following the rejection of his appeal.

  • 2 This section is based on Arendt’s (2006), and on Amos Elon’s introduction to that volume, entitled (...)
  • 3 Arendt, 2006, xii-xiii.

5The banality of evil has been the object of much controversy and earned Arendt vitriolic criticism — but it also has been greatly misunderstood. It sets out mechanisms, or logics, that underlie the destruction of civilian populations and characterize the behaviour of many bureaucratic agents. Arendt speaks of “administrative crime”, in light of its bureaucratic nature and its commission primarily by what she calls “office criminals”. From her very first observations of Eichmann, Arendt was surprised that he did not appear to be a brute or monster, contrary to his image among the general public, who were convinced that only such creatures could be capable of such crimes. Rather, he appeared to be an ordinary person, to some extent pathetic, even miserable, in his bulletproof witness stand.2 As revealed by Amos Elon, Arendt even wrote in a letter to her friend Karl Jaspers that “Eichmann is actually stupid, but then, somehow, he is not.”3

6Taking this fundamentally contradictory observation as her starting point, Arendt developed a vision of the dynamics underlying Eichmann’s participation in the destruction of European Jewry. In particular, she emphasized the technical and administrative nature of his daily, bureaucratic, work. Like all bureaucrats, Eichmann performed his tasks within a well-delineated system revolving around segmented, depersonalized work — around a routine, in other words. It is of course true that the entire Nazi bureaucracy Eichmann worked in pursued an end which did not appear to be, and was never presented as, criminal. Its victims were never presented as what they were —human beings — but as packages in need of logistic organization. Thus, the attention of the Nazi bureaucrats and civil servants, including Eichmann, involved in the conveying and deportation of Jews to death camps was entirely directed toward the establishment of lists and the conception of transport schedules — in other words, in the execution of a series of technical tasks for purely logistic ends. Their actions were consequently evaluated in terms of yield and efficiency, rather than of their ultimate human, and therefore moral, consequences. The banality of evil is an outgrowth of a perverted and paroxysmally criminal version of industrial civilisation. It implies a radical rupture between the daily technical and bureaucratic tasks, on the one hand, and the consequences, albeit extreme, at the end of the line, on the other. It was by virtue of his unusual zeal in the application of the technical and judicial guidelines of the bureaucracy that Eichmann played such an important role in the destruction of the Jews, although he never personally was in contact with the horror of the consequences of his acts. The administrative — modern — crime which cloaks itself in bureaucracy creates a distance between the producer and the consumer, between the agent and victim. Taken to its logical conclusion, the banality of evil recalls The Odissey and the crime of Nobody, as the Holocaust would have been impossible without the hundreds of thousands of civil servants acting just like Eichmann within a bureaucracy that stripped them of responsibility and rendered their acts anonymous.

7If Arendt’s thesis offends, it is because as soon as Eichmann took the witness stand it was apparent that he was not the monster expected. He was, instead, the dual product of a bureaucratic vision. He was an unthinking entity, which is to say that he did not consider the nature of the action, or enterprise, in which he was participating, or the inhuman consequences it implied. He thus acted from a completely amoral perspective. For Eichmann, this enterprise, despite its criminal nature, was simply a question of technical, administrative, and bureaucratic imperatives, not an opportunity to engage in Arendt’s vision of “thinking”: the disposition to live with oneself, in a silent dialogue between “me and myself”. This technical approach to tasks ultimately prevents one from answering the following question: Would I be capable, after all is said and done, of living with the killer in me? Yet, Arendt warned, it would be wrong to think that Eichmann merely followed orders. In reality, she claimed, he consented to them:

  • 4 Arendt (2003. 46).

all governments [...] even the most autocratic ones, even tyrannies, “rest on consent,” and the fallacy lies in the equation of consent with obedience. An adult consents where a child obeys; if an adult is said to obey, he actually supports the organization or authority the law that claims “obedience”.4

8This consent is characteristic of every modern bureaucracy, regardless of its mission. And it is an important dimension of the banality of evil: Eichmann, like all civil servants, internalized the essence of the social and political situational context, as well as his institution’s structure. Much more than simply obeying superiors, he supported the enterprise, and his devotion is largely explainable in terms of his carreerist objectives. As Arendt so acutely observed:

  • 5 Hannah Arendt, op. cit., 43.

Finally, it must be realized that although these mass murderers acted consistently with racist or anti-Semitic, or at any rate a demographic ideology, the murderers and their direct accomplices more often than not did not believe in these ideological justifications; for them, it was enough that everything happened according to the “will of the Führer” which was the law of the land, and in accordance with the “words of the Führer” which had the force of law.5

  • 6 This thesis is largely supported by Ian Kershaw, in the chapter entitled “Working Towards the Führe (...)

9Any initiative which advanced Hitler’s absolutist objectives — which, although usually broadly defined, were highly emotional embodiments of national socialist ideology — received the most senior support, regardless of its origin in the Nazi bureaucracy. These initiatives were the very foundations of the radicalisation that would inexorably lead to the extermination of the Jews. As long as they directly promoted Hitler’s objectives, they were a guarantee of career advancement. Given the rivalry between the various wings of the Nazi bureaucracy for the Führer’s favours, the formulation of the “right” initiative, i.e. an initiative consistent with Hitler’s views and fully congruent with the Nazi bureaucracy, was a clear asset in the career path of Nazi civil servants, including Eichmann6. This being so, the concept of the banality of evil encapsulates the technical-bureaucratic system of career advancement and the roles expected of this system’s representatives. As Amos Elon puts it:

  • 7 Arendt, op. cit., xiii.

He [Eichmann] personified neither hatred or madness nor an insatiable thirst for blood, but something far worse, the faceless nature of Nazi evil itself, within a closed system run by pathological gangsters, aimed at dismantling the human personality of its victims. The Nazis had succeeded in turning the legal order on its head, making the wrong and the malevolent the foundation of a new "righteousness." In the Third Reich, evil lost its distinctive characteristic by which most people had until then recognized it. [...] Within this upside-down world Eichmann [...] seemed not to have been aware of having done evil7.

Jean-Paul Brodeur and the banality of evil

10Something in Arendt’s thesis spoke to Jean-Paul. While I was still working on my master’s thesis, under his supervision, on the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he warned me that any would-be academic research on massacres and mass violence must necessarily discuss — and in fact take a position on — the banality of evil. In a tone I took to be only half-joking, he warned me that he wouldn’t even read my thesis if I didn’t discuss Arendt’s work on Eichmann. It is important to note here that what follows is somewhat speculative, as Jean-Paul never explicitly explained why he felt the banality of evil to be so important. That being said, I was one of the students in his general doctoral seminar at the School of Criminology of the University of Montreal, which focused on the questions and processes related to the conceptualization and development of a theoretical framework for academic research and production. In light of that experience, I can identify at least two features of Arendt’s thesis — apart from its inherent aesthetics — which caught Jean-Paul’s attention: its conceptual value and its epistemological value.

  • 8 Brodeur (1984).

11Conceptual value. During our discussions, both as a doctoral student and a colleague, I observed that Jean-Paul’s often adopted a contrastive approach — more specifically, the use of two a priori antithetical terms whose juxtaposition or conjunction produced a more valuable conceptual tool. An excellent illustration of this method can be found in La délinquance de l’ordre [crimes of order], one of his best-known works, which deals with commissions of inquiry on police practices8. Jean-Paul often told me that one way to approach a phenomenon, at least initially, is to observe it from a sheltered position rather than tackling it head on and “staring it in the face”, with that approach’s attendant risk of paralysis. In particular, this posture requires identifying the phenomenon’s constituent characteristics and the strategic nexuses which provide the foundation for understanding and eventually theorisation. Arendt’s sheltered position consisted of focusing on the banal circumstances surrounding Eichmann’s actions, rather than blindly assuming — despite the weight of public opinion and the pressure exerted by the public on researchers of that period — that Eichmann was a monster. This contrastive conceptual approach is particularly useful when a phenomenon or object elicits astonishment (in the philosophical sense). It provides additional resources for an epistemological approach, or the construction of a phenomenon as an object of knowledge, and by so doing, it seems to me, lays the groundwork for the second feature of the banality of evil which fascinated Jean-Paul: epistemological value.

12Epistemological value. One of the merits of Arendt’s thesis is the opportunity it affords to conceptualize collective crimes as eminently collective acts rather than the sum of individual acts to be analyzed, as is common in criminology, from an individual-centric perspective. The almost systematic interpretation of Eichmann’s crimes in terms of individual intentionality, and the application of a legal overlay to his practices can only produce a partial and imperfect understanding of these forms of extreme violence. It is worth repeating that Eichmann’s crimes were examples of administrative violence — albeit one whose consequences were the destruction of an entire population. As outlined above, the primary intention of the bureaucrat was not so much to destroy, in whole or in part, an inherently undesirable group, but rather to fulfil the expectations of a bureaucracy, and from a career perspective, anticipate the desires of that hierarchy and the Führer. The crime of the Nazis was not the sum of the individual decisions of all the executioners. In addition, the banality of evil is an epistemologically rich theoretical framework: the bureaucratic operations themselves elucidate the consent or support of the bureaucracy’s representatives to acts, in some cases radical, and are worthy of study. Thus, the corollary of the paradigm of the banality of evil is that participation in Nazi crimes was not an act of hate or sadism — in short, a question of individual disposition — but, ultimately and paradoxically, an act of voluntary compliance to a bureaucratic system that itself tends towards criminal goals. It seems to me that one of the reasons Jean-Paul was interested in this paradigm was because it, or the language in which the theory is formulated, redirects thinking and research related to the “elimination of a population” construct towards a new criminological terrain. Arendt provides us a way to think about a largely neglected dimension of this criminality, namely its collective, administrative, nature. In Eichmann’s case, it was the collectivity, the administration — incarnated in the Nazi bureaucracy — that smothered or distorted any moral sense. This administration allowed concrete and highly technical daily acts to be compartmentalized from their dramatic consequences.

An extension of the banality of evil?

  • 9 Notably Bauman (1989).
  • 10 Tanner. (2011, 2012a, in press, 2012b, in press).

13A striking element of Arendt’s thesis is its presentation of the diversion of the moral sense of actors who no longer think or no longer exhibit a disposition to live with themselves and in a silent dialogue between “me and myself”. While this absence of thought was shown by Arendt, amongst others9, to derive in large part from the phenomenon of modernity and its characteristic bureaucratic organisation, it appears that it may also be conceptualized as the product of other sources. This insight first came to me while I was researching the actions of executioners10.

  • 11 Tanner (2012a).
  • 12 Indeed, Jean-Paul often warned us against attempting to rank genocides, explaining that it was very (...)

14Executioners are knee-deep in front-line violence. While Eichmann — an executer — wielded the pen and the administrative form, the executioners discussed here wielded the knife and the machete. From an epistemological perspective, executioners are distinct from executers11. This paradigm is a promising approach to the actions of executioners, although of course it cannot provide a rigorous validation of the thesis of the banality of evil in the contexts of Rwanda and the ex-Yugoslavia12.

15Because hate and psychopathology are not the sole credible explanations for the massive participation of the executioners, and despite the fact that the executioners acted in close proximity to their victims (literally, as most of the executioners discussed below did not use firearms), and were thus confronted with the immediate consequences of their actions, the absence of thought and moral judgement appears to be a promising perspective from which to approach the understanding and analysis of their acts. However, the details of this concept and its application to actors whose operational context differs radically from that of office criminals remain unexplored. It is precisely this enigma that will concern me here.

  • 13 In this connection, it should be recalled that the results of the psychological tests administered (...)

16Let us follow Jean-Paul’s advice and adopt a sheltered position with regard to the participation of executioners in mass violence construct. It appears that in the same way that the power of Arendt’s thesis is paradoxically dependent on its laying bare of a logic whose banality is an affront to its unspeakable consequences (or which could be related to an extraordinary cause, like the event itself)13, the logic of the executioners’ acts is an extension of their daily routines. It would therefore be inaccurate to speak of a rupture, although this would be expected given the extreme, factual, nature of mass violence. Thus, the praxis, or enabling acts —not themselves actually criminal — for this violence are not as strange or extraordinary to those who commit them as might seem, and are fully integrated into their lifestyle. In the following discussion, I will focus on the habits and lifestyle of the executioners involved in mass violence, just as Arendt focused on Eichmann’s bureaucratic framework. My ultimate goal is to establish whether the aforementioned continuity with daily routines — abstracted from the context of mass violence — is, like the Nazi bureaucracy, a source of Arendt’s absence of thought, itself a prerequisite for the possibility of eliminating the Other. I will base my discussion on the events in Rwanda and the ex-Yugoslavia.

Sequences and continuity of mass violence

  • 14 Tanner (2011).
  • 15 Kershaw (1998), Browning (2007).

17I have written elsewhere that research on mass violence and crimes has, for the most part, revolved around the most staggering aspect of this phenomenon, namely its tragic human consequences14. This state of affairs, a priori legitimate and well founded, is nevertheless problematic, as it tends to reduce the concept of mass violence, inherently highly complex, to its most extreme tangible and observable dimension. Consequently, with rare exceptions15, most of the proffered explanations have analysed situational factors —the here and now of the violence — to the detriment of the events’ historicity and origin in processes of radicalisation. For example, the work by Philip Zimbardo on the Stanford prison, or by Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority, have been extensively cited with nary a word about the fact that the context of mass massacres rarely has anything in common with the experimental conditions of the social psychology laboratories in which the theories were developed. For example, the sequence, or history, that allows us to understand how an individual can find themselves complying with authority or belonging to a group — both of which exert pressure to conform, to act, to finish off their victim — remains unexplained. My point here is not to reject this body of research, but to delineate its external validity, that is, its application to the concrete situations in which executioners actually find themselves.

  • 16 Tanner (2011).

18In addition, I would like to propose an alternate hypothesis that posits participation in mass violence to be the product of a series of six pivotal moments in executioners’ experience of political and social events16. As political, economic, and social events unfold, these pivotal moments, or stages, result in qualitative innovations of the executioners’ representations of their situation. And in return, these representations strongly orient their actions. Participation in mass violence is thus a phenomenon of emergent intentionality and progressive radicalisation, both in terms of macro-politics and the objectives of individuals, who, little by little, consent and participate in a collective criminal enterprise. The violent act constitutes, of course, the most tragic dimension, but must be understood as the culmination of a complex process.

  • 17 An excellent presentation of this idea can be found in Welzer (2007).

19The overall effect of this sequence is to transform the representational frameworks of the executioners, who progressively appropriate the idea of elimination of an out-group that is progressively dehumanized. However, the conditions necessary for the violence remain a major enigma. These conditions are dependent on individuals’ moral and physical capacities, or resources, to commit violent acts. Without pretending to resolve this issue here, my thoughts on the question of the banality of evil is an extension of the sequential model and the idea of emergent intentionality, and aims at providing a framework for the development of a heuristic instrument that would elucidate the participation of executioners in mass violence. In executioners, the banality of evil appears to take four forms: banality of similarity, banality of familiarity, banality of ideas, and banality of routine. As we shall see, and has been extensively described in the literature17, executioners’ progression towards mass violence is paralleled by a transformation of their referential frameworks — particularly their moral framework — and a tendency to situate the Other beyond their circle of moral obligation. However, their prior habits and lifestyles must also be taken into consideration, as they have enabled the development of capacities, or skills, that facilitate de facto acts of violence. It is nevertheless crucial to note that these habits and lifestyles are in no way inherently criminal: it is simply a question of it being easier to wield a machete if you have been doing it every day of your life than if you have never held one in your hand before.

Banality of similarity

20One form of banality characteristic of the executioners is what can be termed the banality of similarity. This concept signifies that the praxis, or procedural specificity, of the violent act — for example, the use of a knife or machete — is not, at first glance, all that strange to those who commit it. In Rwanda, for example, the executioners interviewed by the journalist Jean Hatzfeld spoke of their familiarity with the machete they used daily prior to the outbreak of the 1994 genocide. One of them mentioned that:

  • 18 Élie, in Hatzfeld (2003 44) [translation].

[...] Rwandans are taught how to use the machete when they’re children. Catching a machete in the hand is something we do every morning. We cut sorghum, we cut banana trees, we clear vines, we kill chickens. Even the women and little girls use the machete for minor tasks, like splitting firewood. The same motion is used for different purposes, and we never lose our touch.18

21Thus, because the motion of the machete was the same in both daily and mass violence contexts, the use of the machete became dissociated from its real consequences. Concretely, the use of machetes to kill chickens facilitated habituation to the use of this tool to kill people. Similarly, data obtained from the ex-Yugoslavia, where a significant proportion of the executions performed during the mass violence of the 1990s were carried out with a knife, indicates the existence of strategies designed to desensitize the militias, whose goal was to kill. This is clear from the following excerpt from a filmed interview with a young Serb, Borislav Herak, in which he describes his part in the killings:

  • 19 Kanovic, Arnaulatic (1992) [translation].

We were trained in the city of Bioca by Pustivuk Risto. He was a police officer in Sarajevo. He demonstrated with pigs. He would pick up a pig by the ears, throw it to the ground, take a knife, and cut its throat. And we all did it. Throw a pig to the ground, take a knife, cut its throat.19

22Although nothing suggests that Borislav Herak had been accustomed to executing pigs, our field studies, particularly those in rural Serbia, revealed that cutting a pig’s throat is a common, entirely normal, practice to the people of this region. Thus, by the time the executioners were called upon to put their experience into action, they had become desensitized to executing humans with knives or machetes, regardless of the precise moment at which they had become socialized to do so, either long ago or more recently. This desensitization took the form of a separation of, or at least a distinction between, the act, strictly speaking, and its consequences: thanks to their “training”, which in fact had never involved practice on humans in non-belligerent contexts, once the act had been committed against men, women and children, it was considered only in light of its technicality, dissociated from its criminal and moral consequences. The act was not perceived as “unusual” per se, because in contexts outside of the war or mass violence, it was never committed against humans. This is one of the logics that underlies the absence of thought characteristic of executioners: like Eichmann, the executioners exclude de facto the victim from their moral compass. Nevertheless, the banality of similarity cannot account for the complexity of all the logics responsible for the absence of thought in executioners. It is only part of the answer, and must be understood in light of other forms of banality — notably the banality of familiarity — which complement it and potentiate it.

Banality of familiarity

23The banality of familiarity is intimately related to the banality of similarity, as it refers to the habituation to the details of killing living beings. Furthermore, it is a manifestation of a certain type of professionalization that raises the threshold of insensitivity to, or tolerance for, the decorum of these practices. In daily life, empathy for animals, which should not be confused with anthropomorphism, is counterbalanced by legitimate justification: for example, pigs are killed for food, in keeping with local customs and traditions, and as a way of satisfying fundamental human needs.

  • 20 Rémy (2005).
  • 21 Arborio (2001).

24The banality of familiarity serves to dissociate the act — not from its ultimate consequences (taking the life of a person), but from the scene that the executioner must tolerate. This question has been studied in the context of the professionalization of so-called “dirty professions” — e.g. slaughterhouse workers20, medical professionals21, the police, crime-scene investigators — which require individuals to develop coping mechanisms for dirt, filth, and discomfort. This phenomenon can also be detected in the accounts of Rwandan executioners, notably Élie:

  • 22 Hatzfeld (2003, 44) [translation].

The iron is silent, whether you use it to cut a branch, an animal, or a man. Really, a man is like an animal, you cut his head or neck, and he dies. In the beginning, those who had already killed chickens, and especially goats, had an advantage, which is understandable. Later on, everyone got used to this new activity and got just as good.22

25Here, once again, the professionalization over time is an expression of a preoccupation with the development of techniques and skills related to an activity which — because only certain occupations (butchers, medical professionals, police, etc.) perform it in our societies — is unusual. This professionalization leads actors to concentrate on the act’s instrumental role — i.e. its ability to satisfy the necessities of daily living — and thus suppress or disregard its collateral effects. In a way, this is a form a cognitive dissociation or wilful blinding, barely conceivable to those who have had not been habituated to this decorum. We strongly felt this during our field studies in the ex-Yugoslavia, where we witnessed the slitting of a pig’s throat. Some field notes:

[...] the farmer, his son and [a friend of the family] prepared the equipment necessary for the execution of the pig: a sledgehammer, a knife scarcely longer than the palm of a hand, and a tripod taller than a man, equipped with a winch and cable with a hook at its end. The three men were concentrated; they talked together for a few seconds, and then the father signaled to the third one to go get the animal. Events unrolled rapidly: the man returned from the barn with a pig, a good-sized beast, and led it to [what would be] the site of execution; the son struck it with the long-handled sledgehammer; the pig collapsed on its side, shuddering, and the father, standing behind it, immediately wrapped his left arm around its head and with an extremely rapid motion of his right hand slit its throat. The knife stroke was so effective that the pig had no time to struggle [...] [translation]

  • 23 Hatzfeld (2002).

26I found this scene anything but banal, as it was the first time I had attended such an event. And the anxiety I felt stemmed precisely from this lack of habituation to such scenes — or, equivalently, a lack of professionalization — that would have allowed me to approach the scene from a technical rather than emotional perspective. Equally, this episode evinces professionalization of a different sort, in that there was a specific division of labour, which served to dilute individual responsibility, Furthermore, every the actions of every protagonist were interrelated: leading the pig to the site of execution was not fatal in itself, nor was stunning it, and the act of execution once the pig was on the ground was part of a farmer’s weekly, if not daily, routine from time immemorial. The division of labour was just as noticeable in Rwanda, where one of the Hutu villagers’ tasks was to drive the Tutsi victims from the marshes and thus steer them, like a herd of animals, to the Interahamwe militia who systematically executed them23.

Banality of ideas

  • 24 For example, Straus (2006).
  • 25 It has recently been alleged that the attack could have in fact come from the Hutu camp: Le Monde, (...)
  • 26 For the designation of internal enemies, or intimate enemies, see Conesa (2011).

27This form of banality encapsulates the consent to the very idea of the action to be performed, that is, the elimination of a group in order to preserve order. As a corollary, the elimination is understood as a defensive action. The very idea of group elimination does not arise out of some sort of “big bang”, and must be understood as the endpoint of a progressive exclusion of the group from public life, and ultimately, from the executioners’ moral compass. This exclusionary mechanism generally occurs when there is resentment, antipathy, or frustration between two groups. The resentment is provoked by a change in the social, political, or resource balance between religious, ethnic or national groups within a society. In the case of Rwanda, several studies have documented the progressive transformation of the Hutus’ perception of their Tutsi neighbours24. This process can, of course, be observed elsewhere; however, understanding of the Rwandan violence requires an appreciation of the numerous episodes of Hutu-Tutsi conflict over the years. Briefly, the political relations between Tutsis and Hutus became severely strained in the 1990s, particularly following the attempt by the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR), a Tutsi organisation, to reconquer territory from neighbouring countries. The Arusha Accords, signed by both parties in 1993, were intended to calm the strife and establish a basis for the sharing of power between the two groups. However, tensions between Tutsis and Hutus exploded following the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, on April 6, 1994, when his airplane was downed by missile fire. Although this cannot be considered the sole cause of the genocide that was to come, the assassination was nevertheless a trigger for massacres, which were generally presented as acts of war by the Tutsi FPR25. From that moment on, Hutu propaganda and hate media, especially Radio Télévision des Mille Collines, progressively designated the Tutsi internal enemies, cockroaches, illness, that had to be immediately eradicated26. Thus, it was expected that, in order to maintain order and protect society, the Hutus would eliminate the cockroaches and the source of the epidemic — which is to say, their Hutu neighbours. Élie’s testimony, once again, is eloquent here:

  • 27 Hatzfeld (2003, 216).

In 1991, the headlines of the military newspapers called, in bold letters, for the complete elimination of the Tutsi, identified as the natural enemies of the Hutu. Afterwards, the targeting continued, slowly increasing in intensity, on the radio. In political meetings, we were taught not to share parcels or goods with Tutsis. Not to help them farm, not to marry them, not to let them get away with anything in day-to-day affairs; because one day, we would get around to killing them and these relationships would be hindrances. But we received no information about the date or way27.

28In this context, the banality of ideas can be seen in the fact the executioners did not eliminate individual Tutsi fathers, mothers, friends, neighbours, children etc., but rather the collective category of “Tutsi”, i.e. cockroaches and illness. What is frightening here is that, like Eichmann, the executioners were not motivated by racist ideology. To consider them fanatics is to advance a “non-explanation”. Instead, this violence should be seen as an action — pest control — that the public not only understood to be necessary but also expected to be performed. Although the executioners materially benefited from their participation in the mass massacres, they appeared to see their acts as a sort of prophylaxis that preserved both order and their own place in society. This in turn led to dissociation, observable by the framing of the act as the elimination of a danger, not of humans.

Banality of repetition

29Finally, there is the banality of repetition — the normalization and habituation that develops in parallel with participation in massacres and killings. It should be noted that this normalization is inversely proportional to the mobilisation of the executioners. As a result of the banality of repetition, tasks or acts are considered only in terms of their instrumental value, in this case their effectiveness in maintaining social order and protecting society against vermin. This is the ultimate form of moral weakening, in which individuals see their acts only in terms of their technical virtue. This normalisation is a further mark of professionalism: now, the executioners’ concentration on their tasks blocks out any awareness of their surroundings and of the larger enterprise in which they participate. The nature and application of this idea are particularly clear in the testimonies of Ignace and Joseph-Désiré, both of whom were executioners:

  • 28 Hatzfeld (2003, 56) [translation].

In the beginning we were too worked up too think straight. Afterwards, we were too used to it. In the state we were in, it didn’t bother us to think that we were in the middle of cutting up our neighbours, one by one. It became a matter of course. They were no longer our long-time good neighbours, people who had offered us a drink at the cabaret, because they shouldn’t have been there. They had become people to be gotten rid of, if I can put it that way. They were no longer what they had been, and neither were we. We weren’t embarrassed about what we were doing to them, or about the past, because we weren’t embarrassed about anything28.

  • 29 Hatzfeld (2003; 60) [translation].

It was a madness that took on a life of its own. You got on board or got out of the way, but you followed the crowd. If you had a machete in your hand, you didn’t listen to anything. You forgot everything, starting with your intellect. This repeated program freed us from thinking about what we were doing. We went out and came back, without a thought in our heads. We hunted because that was our daily routine until everything was over. Our arms drove our minds, or in any event our minds never spoke up29.

  • 30 At least, this is what Élie’s testimony (Hatzfeld, 2003, 56) indicates.

30Thus, the more the executioners killed, the easier the killing got. To the external observer, it is this form of banality that is the most troubling. The desensitization and the gulf between the executioners’ construction of their acts and the acts’ consequences were so great that they ultimately thought of what they were doing not as killing living beings, but as “a job to get done”30. This is the paroxysm of “absence”, or blinding, of killers in the face of their acts.


31With the executioners, as with Eichmann, the disconnect, or gap, between the nature of the facts or acts, on the one hand, and their underlying logics, on the other, is striking. There is a major cleavage between the acts’ horror and the perpetrators’ ordinariness — “ordinariness” because the executioners were neither monsters nor psychopaths, despite what one might think, and because of the customary, daily or weekly, nature of the acts. It is precisely in this second sense that the idea of banality appears to have the most to offer from a heuristic perspective. It is precisely because they are routine and part of the daily life of the executioners that these acts are immune to the psychological — and thus moral — activation experienced by every person committing them for the first time. It appears that the executioners — like Eichmann, who devoted himself to tasks situated within the limited horizon of bureaucratic work — fixated on acts that were overwhelmingly seen as technical. But in this case the fixation on technicality appears not so much situational — although Arendt provides little detail on Eichmann’s pre-war life — as an extension of the executioners’ habits, lifestyles, and socialisation in the use of weapons: the machete for subsistence purposes in Rwanda, the knife as an essential traditional tool in the rural Balkans. Regardless of whether it is due to the situational context or to the habits — or habitus — of the executioners, this monopolisation of the mind by technical minutiae leads to the same consequences, namely tunnel vision and an absence of the disposition to live with oneself, in a silent dialogue between “me and myself”. In short: an absence of thought. Thus, to paraphrase Arendt in her letter to Karl Jaspers, the executioners are actually stupid, but then, somehow, they are not: the banality of evil is situated between the rock of a premeditated moral deficit and the hard place of a disposition to cruelty or hatred of the Other, a disposition which emerges from familiarity with the tools and acts related to execution. This conclusion, offered with all due modesty, appears to have been as true for the Nazi bureaucrats as it was for the Rwandan or Serbian executioners.

32The preceding discussion may of course be open to debate from a number of perspectives. Firstly, from a methodological perspective, it requires validation with a larger data set and a much more systematic analysis. In addition, the original terminology is open to debate: Arendt herself regretted having labelled the fruit of her research “the banality of evil”, a term which caused a public uproar and set off a wave of indignation. Despite these questions, the notion of the banality of evil is a rich starting point for knowledge construction.

  • 31 The functional conceptualisation is based on the idea of competition between bureaucratic actors an (...)

33Let us now return to this article’s raison d’être, and see how the preceding discussion relates to Jean-Paul Brodeur’s interest in Arendt’s thesis. From a conceptual perspective, the banality of evil lends itself to contrastive approach which, although in its infancy, appears to me a promising approach to the phenomenon of executioners. It provides an alternative to intuitive analysis, and a framework for an approach to the mental gymnastics required to embrace both the reflexive indignation attendant on the horror of one’s acts and the meticulous analysis of the (revolting) ordinariness that surrounds these acts. These gymnastics allow the reconciliation of these two a priori antithetical terms related to the participation of executioners in mass violence, and the emergence of a new qualitative concept. This in turn creates a framework for an understanding of the role of executioners that is fundamentally different from conventional situational, dispositional, and functional conceptualisations31.

34The notion of the banality of evil allows us to see violence, hitherto exclusively viewed in terms of its hic et nunc, as part of a vast phenomenon which should not be seen as exclusively vertical, i.e. in terms of a complex relationship between actor and system, but rather horizontally, between actor and the actor’s habits prior to the mass violence. And it is precisely by interrelating these two dimensions of the phenomenon that the banality of evil provokes thought while providing a basis for a response to the philosophical astonishment elicited by the participation of executioners in massacres. This marks a transition from a conceptual to an epistemological approach.

  • 32 Tanner (2011; 2012b).

35From an epistemological perspective, the thesis of the banality of evil sets the stage for the development of a new understanding of executioners: under this new paradigm, our understanding is based on analyses of the executioners’ history, experience, socialisation, and even, dare one say, habitus, rather than merely the collective nature of the executioners’ actions and the role of the bureaucracy. Additionally, this conceptual framework implies the need to ground reflection and knowledge construction related to executioners in a broader temporal horizon than the crisis period, which has generally been the norm. Although they are not of course the sole explanations for escalation to concrete action, lifestyles have important heuristic value, as they draw attention to the absence of morality demonstrated by the executioners on the killing fields, a phenomenon that has generally been tacitly assumed but not empirically analysed. This wider perspective, in terms of the duration and collective context of violence — on Arendt’s conjecture has allowed me to extend my thinking, begun in my earlier work32, on the roles of time, sequence, and executioners’ individual development. Possible future work could consist of further thought on the notion of technical compliance and its connection to executioners’ daily habits, as well as more rigorous identification of the role of modernity, a factor considered essential by both Arendt and Zygmunt Bauman. Indeed, it should be apparent from the preceding discussion that the prerequisites for the paradigm of banality extend well beyond the civilisation/bureaucracy construct, which is now merely one of many etiological factors.

36In closing, I would like to emphasize that although Jean-Paul and I never had the opportunity of writing together on this question, this article was largely inspired by the confluence of his philosophical astonishment by the question of mass massacres, and Arendt’s thinking. I hope that this outline will inspire further research on this question, which would no doubt immensely please Jean-Paul Brodeur.

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1 Although based on observations in Rwanda, the ideas developed in this article are discussed in greater detail in Tanner (2011).

2 This section is based on Arendt’s (2006), and on Amos Elon’s introduction to that volume, entitled “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt”.

3 Arendt, 2006, xii-xiii.

4 Arendt (2003. 46).

5 Hannah Arendt, op. cit., 43.

6 This thesis is largely supported by Ian Kershaw, in the chapter entitled “Working Towards the Führer (1998).

7 Arendt, op. cit., xiii.

8 Brodeur (1984).

9 Notably Bauman (1989).

10 Tanner. (2011, 2012a, in press, 2012b, in press).

11 Tanner (2012a).

12 Indeed, Jean-Paul often warned us against attempting to rank genocides, explaining that it was very difficult to establish a basis for comparison, and the risk of producing an invalid analysis was thus high.

13 In this connection, it should be recalled that the results of the psychological tests administered by doctors Kelly and Gilbert to the Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg trials have long remained secret. In point of fact, they did not indicate, in contrast to public opinion, that the leaders were dangerous psychopaths. James Waller discusses this point extensively (2007, 2nd edition).

14 Tanner (2011).

15 Kershaw (1998), Browning (2007).

16 Tanner (2011).

17 An excellent presentation of this idea can be found in Welzer (2007).

18 Élie, in Hatzfeld (2003 44) [translation].

19 Kanovic, Arnaulatic (1992) [translation].

20 Rémy (2005).

21 Arborio (2001).

22 Hatzfeld (2003, 44) [translation].

23 Hatzfeld (2002).

24 For example, Straus (2006).

25 It has recently been alleged that the attack could have in fact come from the Hutu camp: Le Monde, with AFP and Reuters, “Nouvelles révélations sur l’élément déclencheur du génocide rwandais”, 10 January 2012.

26 For the designation of internal enemies, or intimate enemies, see Conesa (2011).

27 Hatzfeld (2003, 216).

28 Hatzfeld (2003, 56) [translation].

29 Hatzfeld (2003; 60) [translation].

30 At least, this is what Élie’s testimony (Hatzfeld, 2003, 56) indicates.

31 The functional conceptualisation is based on the idea of competition between bureaucratic actors and on the principle, discussed above, of work towards the Führer, advanced by Kershaw (1998).

32 Tanner (2011; 2012b).

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Samuel Tanner, « Some thoughts on the banality of evil, inspired by a conversation with Jean-Paul Brodeur »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. IX | 2012, mis en ligne le 23 mai 2012, consulté le 27 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Samuel Tanner

École de criminologie et Centre International de Criminologie Comparée, Université de Montréal (Canada). Contact:

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