Banality of Evil | By Siddhanth Sharma

Banality of Evil 

By Siddhanth Sharma 



Why do people do appalling things? This problem has been the centre of philosophical deliberations since centuries. No amount of rationalization of these depraving human tendencies, can explain the darker side of human nature. After the Second World War, people are trying to seek more naturalistic explanations, and are doing away with metaphysical justifications.

Needless to say, evil has been the deepest and most central aspect of human existence. Our idea of ‘evil’ have been borrowed from the plethora of portrayals of the phenomena- through literature, religious scriptures, art, and other means. Since time immemorial, different religions, cultures and societies have utilized various means to portray and disseminate their interpretations of Evil. On a brief perusal of these representations, it is safe to say that, since time immemorial, society has personified evil as a grotesque looking, abysmal, maniacal beast with long fangs and horns, exceptional and committed to enforce moral transgressions amongst the unsuspecting mortals.


The Banality of Evil: Ordinary is Depraved


The doctrine of Banality of Evil, strikes at this very glorified perception of evil. In her controversial work Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, the German-American scholar avers that the phenomena of evil is ‘terrifyingly normal’ and ‘mundane’.

In light of the Holocaust, Arendt proposes that, the great evils in history were the consequence of quotidian methods and systems, followed to the very bone by ordinary people, who were completely disconnected from and hence unable to judge the evil reality of their acts.

Evil is not exceptional or dramatic; it is routine, clinical, omnipresent, inherent in human psyche and hence, very difficult to exactly predict or prevent, thus making the world an increasingly volatile turf.

The mercurial rise of the Nazi party and their subsequent anti-Semitic pogrom is a crystal clear example of how ordinary citizens, through the meticulous exercise of their evil duties, hastened millions to their graves.

Evil, according to Arendt, is not always the consequence of sociological or psychological deviants. She believes that ‘evil’ has a universal propensity, it becomes ‘banal’, when it acquires an unthinking and systematic character and becomes institutionalized, when ordinary people participate in it, build a distance from it and consequently justify it in countless incoherent ways.

There are no moral conundrums or revulsions in this new version of evil, unlike the sinister personification since time immemorial. Evil is faceless and abstract.

Arendt’s version of evil is not born out of passion or ideology, but from a blind and creative obedience emanating from a deep existential crisis, frustration and lack of self-esteem.

Evil is merely viewed as a task to fulfil, in order to achieve a sense of self-actualization; unlike the traditional representations of evil, Arendt’s ‘thought defying’ version of evil is characterized by a completely aloof and cold treatment of their sinister activities.

Eichmann, according to Arendt, was the grim personification of bureaucratic emptiness who chose to dispossess himself of his morality and rationality. His only purpose in life was to blindly implement orders, without exposing them to the touchstone of his ‘conscience’, which as a matter of fact had been trampled over by his incessant subservience, firstly to his grim insecurities and secondly to the skewed propaganda of his superiors in the Nazi party. It was this apathy towards ‘moral considerations’ that propelled him to rise up the ranks of the Nazi parties and become the ‘technical administrator of the Final Solution in Hungary’.

The populist notions in Nazi Germany, back in the 1930s were based on an acute sense of emptiness. The First world War had effortlessly thrown Germany into a dim abyss of burgeoning foreign debts, unemployment, floundering political setups, and a weak sense of cultural identity. The Germans were hence, desperate to seek answers and remedies to bail them out from this conundrum. After receiving no support whatsoever from the existing German politico, the Germans pinned their hopes on the emerging Nazi party, who promised to revive the glory the country was stripped off by the Allied victory, and simultaneously harboured a passionate anti-Semitism ideology, holding the Jews liable for their misfortune. The German populace finally had someone to shift the blame on, and were now given a chance to transform their country from the stinging ruins- hence anti-Semitism was normalized, and made banal, because the persecution of the Jews was considered ‘morally correct’.

The Banality of Evil: A sinister reality of the modern times


The Abu Ghraib Prison Tortures

The Abu Ghraib prison was a high security US military prison set up in Iraq, left to the surveillance of ordinary military personnel in the light of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The high security facility housed Iraqi men, women and children who were picked up in random military sweeps or at highway checkpoints.  

What followed in the prison, was a systematic, wanton, sadistic and utterly dehumanizing violation of human rights by seemingly unsuspecting military soldiers and officers, who took extreme advantage of their position of ordination.  

The military officials meticulously executed a plethora of morally unnerving torture techniques such as forced incest, forced homosexual intercourse, sodomy, waterboarding, rape, electrocution, parading the prisoners naked while covering their bodies in faeces, and more.

Officials involved in the same were convicted and sentenced to 2-3 years of imprisonment, despite explicit evidence establishing their involvement in this preposterous scandal.

The greatest irony in this case, was the apparent backdrop by which the United States justified their invasion, on the basis of  liberating Iraqis from the reigns of Saddam Hussein’s despotism, securing their liberties, promoting world peace, et al. But, the tortures of Abu Ghraib prove otherwise- in fact, they reveal a sense of moral depravity, and a conscious goodbye to ‘cognitive ability’. Again, just like the Germans, in a bid to fix their dented respect, the Americans wanted to seek to avenge the horrors of the 9/11 bombings. They wanted to shift the blame on some entity, which in the present case happened to be the Iraqis, who were in no way even closely related to the 9/11 ignominy.

The Islamic State:

The Islamic State (IS) is an extremist outfit, particularly active in the countries of Syria and Iraq. In the 2010s, the Middle East saw a tectonic shift in socio-political dynamics. Seizing this opportunity, with the advent of the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, in 2014 the IS through violent browbeating took advantage of this chaos and embarked on a journey of establishing an Islamic Caliphate with ruthless ferocity.

In order to establish this Caliphate, IS unleashed a reign of terror, through atrocious racial pogroms, mass rape, enslaving women, bombings, beheadings of apostate or kafirs, and other ways.  

IS’s well organized recruitment and savvy use of social media, maintains a mercurial radicalisation and subsequent ‘brain washing’ of ordinary citizens all around the world, including non-Muslims and breeding them into home grown ‘jihadis’.

These terrorists were, in no way, exceptional or extraordinary beings. They were seemingly normal individuals who allowed themselves to be led into performing atrocious acts, just following orders to hurt, humiliate and kill, because they were in a desperate search for identity and purpose, and obeying the ‘cherry picked ultra-fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran’ helped them achieve this self-actualization. In most cases, financial and cultural insecurities have also propelled quotidian individuals to join the ranks of this ‘unholy bloodbath’.    

IS’s barbaric version of evil is not a relic of religion, it is, in the words of Freud, one ruled by the eros and thanatos, i.e., impulses or instincts impelling them towards creation and destruction. These instincts are inherent in humanity and can only be postponed, but not entirely suppressed.

Even after IS has been ‘wiped off the face of Earth’, as the Western nations would like to believe, there will always be a different shade of IS’s evil that will emerge in some part of the world, that will partake in equally or increasingly destructive ways. Human proclivity towards destruction and their nurturing of inherent flaws can be attributed to this never ending conundrum between good and evil.




Evil is an immortal phenomena- one can never banish the human propensity for atrocity. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world, but it is those that undermine the potentiality of human improvement that are demonised as ‘evil’. The grim reality of modern times is that evil is colourless and emerges from ordinary humanistic tendencies, especially when they are placed in a position of ordination or they seek purpose in life. Ordinary mortals are the vessels of ethical and moral conundrums, possessing the polarizing emotions of sympathy and apathy, of peace and aggression. At the end of the day, what moulds the moral fate of civilization, and ensures it’s perpetuation, is nurturing the positive facet of human psyche over the negative. The major threat to a ‘good life’ emanates from within human beings, which if not contained in an efficacious manner can expose humanity to an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.  

Image by Free-Photos From Pixabay


This article has been written by Siddhanth Sharma. Born and brought up in Mumbai, Siddhanth is learning Law at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. He has been inclined towards learning about World and Indian History, International Politics, Constitutional Law, and Human Rights. Apart from academic interests, Siddhanth also enjoys listening to soft rock, jazz, Indian and Western Classical music, reading fiction, and watching ‘The Office’. He believes that one’s journey is a continuous process of seeking and learning; the day we stop learning, is the day we stop evolving.


All views presented in the article belong solely to the writer. The Editor does not support or condemn the views, and neither does The Global Telescope. The Global Telescope remains impartial and promotes every individual's right to freedom of speech and expression while not holding any responsibility for the views presented whatsoever.


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