Radical Evil: Bernard-Henri LÚvy on the Murder of Daniel Pearl

Michael Shurkin

Bernard-Henri LÚvy
Qui a tuÚ Daniel Pearl? (Who killed Daniel Pearl?)
2003, Bernard Grasset

(Note: This review is based on the French edition; a translation has just been released by Melville House Publishing.)

In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt wrote that she had backed down from an earlier assertion about "radical evil" and now held a different view, one which has in the fifty years since the letter was written become rather famous. "It is indeed my opinion now," Arendt wrote, "that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension." She continued:

It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is "thought-defying," as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its "banality." Only the good has depth and can be radical.

Arendt was trying to put her finger on something she saw in Nazism and Soviet Communism, something so awful that it left her profoundly bewildered and frightened. Like other intellectuals, she was perplexed by evil. What was it? What did it mean? She had hoped to understand evil by attending Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, where it would presumably be on clear display. But she was disappointed. Like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, there was no 'there' there. Eichmann was banal, the system was banal - there was no heart of darkness. And, concurrently, there was no capacity on the part of the legal and philosophical defenses of the Western liberal order to define and adequately respond to it. Neither the Nuremberg Trial, the pre- and post-war international treaties on humans rights, nor the Jerusalem trial successfully got to the bottom of what so threatened us. In Arendt's opinion, they dodged.

Today when we say the crimes "defied comprehension," many people mean that they are so awful, hideous, etc., that they cannot be grasped. But this is not what Arendt meant. In fact, she meant the exact opposite. Eichmann himself personified the conundrum, for everything about him and his crimes defied classification and comprehension. Eichmann was no monster; one of the Israeli psychologists who interviewed him in prison declared that Eichmann was more 'normal' than he was, particularly after the meeting. Eichmann's crimes, moreover, were not exactly crimes in the technical sense, for there was nothing on the books that quite matched what he did. There was little legal precedent that might have prescribed what to do with him and how to try him, nor was it evident who should try him and according to which law. He gave the impression of having been a bureaucratic functionary. It was as if his crimes were so great that they were no longer crimes.

At the same time, Arendt had no patience for those who would spare Eichmann's life (Martin Buber among them). She regarded many contemporaries who clung to liberal Enlightenment humanism as fools. Yet, because Arendt was not about to abandon liberalism herself, she sought to defend it from the threat that Eichmann and Stalin represented, which in turn meant recognizing that there was indeed such a thing as evil. The task proved too much for her. Arendt, one of the century's most rigorous intellectuals, was reduced to saying she knew evil when she saw it, and pointing her finger at Eichmann.

Today, the discourse of evil is in even worse shape. First, the term itself has been co-opted by George W. Bush and thus emptied of all useful meaning: "evildoers" are our enemies, nothing more. Second, whereas Nazi evil was remarkable in its non-utility, the evil we face today at least has the trappings of meaning. It arguably has causes, reasons, or at least excuses. And finally, our intellectual discourse often seems trapped in a false dilemma between na´ve moralism on the one hand (evil is evil, and that's it) and oversimplified, exculpatory causality on the other (evil results from certain factors, and therefore isn't really evil).

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Image: Adolf Eichmann

August 2003

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