Little Tiny Actions and the Safety of One's Immortal Soul

by Tabitha Rasa

I've been reading non-fiction for a change, specifically the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt (New York: The Viking Press, 1963, 312 pages). It's an examination of what it takes for someone to participate in a genocide project.

Historic Bad Guys: Eichmann Wasn't a Big Fry

I'm not a historian (in case the first clause of this essay didn't clue you in) and my knowledge of World War II is pretty dim, so I didn't know who Eichmann was prior to reading the book. He was the man in charge of transporting Jews from all over Reich-occupied western and eastern Europe to concentration camps, mostly to killing centers. His participation in the genocide project undertaken by the Nazis was facilitative: He merely arranged for the transport of millions of Jews to a destination where he knew they would be "liquidated." He was a pretty small potato in the Reich and had little or no policy-making authority. He was cleared of almost all direct charges of murder (there was like one guy he killed himself).

Eichmann had relatives who were Jewish, knew certain Jews (prominent Jewish leaders) quite well, and was something of an expert in Jewish culture. He knew full well what he was doing and to whom and what the results of his actions would be. Yet the portrait Arendt paints of this man is of a pathetic man: Idealistic, certainly, but also without a grasp on reality. It's hard, after reading a few chapters of the book, to see him as evil. He seems, instead, in a weird way, quite harmless!

Eichmann is evil, but it is to his essential bureaucratic nature and his methodical fulfillment -- of evil ends -- that the book's subtitle refers. Arendt chose Eichmann to represent "the banality of evil," because he serves as an example of a not-very-bright, not-very-deep thinker who buys into an ideology that just happens to be extremist.

Hans Average German Guy

Frankly, I think my little book report here does no justice whatever to Arendt's book. My ability to read it at all speaks volumes about how well it is written, since I usually require a juicy plot to pull me through, and I recommend that anyone interested at all in these musings read the source of them. However, I'm going to quote a couple of passages from Arendt's book to illustrate how it is working on my brain. First, Arendt relates a story of a German who was not at all average, in that he helped Jews, and was executed for it:
Anton Schmidt was in charge of a patrol in Poland that collected stray German soldiers who were cut off from their units. In the course of doing this, he had run into members of the Jewish underground, . . . and he had helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. Most important of all: "He did not do it for money"; This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942, when Anton Schmidt was arrested and executed. . . . [H]ow utterly different everything would [have been] in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told."
Arendt continues:
[T]he lesson of such stories [as that of Anton Schmidt] is simple and within everybody's grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not.
Arendt tells one or two such tales of individual resistance to underscore her point, which is that the evil of the Holocaust was in the sum of the millions of tiny acts of complicity, of failure to resist. Eichmann's contribution to the extermination of the Jews was a mundane act -- a terrifically well organized shuttle system -- but he did it knowingly in the service of an evil end. He knew what part he played in the whole extermination process. He approved of the extermination process, and he enabled it to be done. In his complicity, Eichmann truly was Everyman. Most Germans (and citizens of Reich-occupied countries) knew of, approved of, and enabled the extermination of Jews, through thousands of tiny, complicit actions or inactions.

Eichmann's particular idiosyncrasy lay in his ability to so thoroughly rationalize his actions that he felt no guilt whatsoever. But most Germans, while they might not achieve the freedom from conscience that Eichmann found, were able to rationalize to a profound degree the extermination of the Jews, and their direct or indirect participation therein.

Why Study Philosophy When You Have Faith?

I've never been a big fan of philosophy, out of ignorance, mostly; "Don't argue about whether the chair exists. Just fucking sit down," I used to like to say. I've prided myself on having more common sense than most and on my quests being more about meat and potatoes than about seeking the Holy Grail. How can I separate the spiritual and the philosophical, which I've always regarded as ivory-tower studies, from the problem of trying to keep body and soul together? I do believe, without being able to help it, in the existence of some force (outside myself and apparently privy to more and deeper information than I). And I feel that this force is at work in my life and in the world in general. In very mundane matters, like running into old friends in seemingly impossible coincidental circumstances, I notice certain phenomena, miracles you might say, that seem to provide evidence of some kind of celestial intervention. Evidence enough for me; I wouldn't be trying to proselytize any time soon, but I'm starting to feel -- well -- safe. I have a solid sense that whatever occurs, bad or good, I can walk through it and be okay on the other (aside here).

However, lately I've needed to study philosophy, if only to find a faith that addresses a broader scope of challenges. If I believe in some heavenly mediator, how do I RELATE that to what I see around me? I look in any direction here in the city and see homeless selling Street News: Some of them have a mug that chills your blood. Others are so fucked up with DTs you can't think how they'll hang on long enough to get a drink. Others are so pitiful it breaks your heart. Then right behind them, another one you practically don't even notice. "The poor you will always have with you," indeed. How can a God of Love tolerate that shit?

The Safety of My Immortal Soul

In my life, there are several large evils to choose from, but suppose I address just homelessness, for the moment. I am complicit in that particular evil. Okay, I don't think homelessness is a good end, and I don't approve of the fact that I don't work against it; but my complicity resides in my lack of action against it. I sometimes give homeless people money and sometimes not. Regardless of whether I give somebody a handout, I'm aware that I have much more than I need.

All haves vs. have-nots ramblings aside, I'm aware that my own immortal soul is the only one I can save here. In fact, if I fail to save my own life -- if I start drinking again, for example, it will spell disaster, and not just for me, but for a number of people close to me -- I will contribute to the problem. Homelessness, in fact, is something I can bring on my own self. I have to remember that I can in no way be perfect, especially not now that I'm no longer drinking.

And since we're talking about immortal souls, what's my motivation, as the actor says? Is it really white liberal guilt? Do I really think heaven exists, or that I could even get in, no matter how hard I try? Maybe it's fear of hell! I imagine some Judgment Day thing happening and I just don't want to hear, "Tabitha, you were part of the fucking problem." Finally, though, I think it's something else.Fear of fear, I think, or desire to be free of fear, at least.

The other morning I woke up with a start. I had way overslept, and woke from some night terror you can only feel in dreams, where you are absolutely and irrevocably doomed. I woke up with that sticky, sweaty, irrationally deep fear that probably everybody has from time to time.

And you know what? It made me grateful, ironically: I almost never feel that way anymore. Not since I detoxed (which took about two years, I won't shit you) have I had that horrible feeling of nameless dread, except occasionally in sleep. And I do not miss it, I can promise you.

Avoiding that terror is one of the big reasons I do my part to stay away from booze, drugs, cigarettes, and more: whole patterns of behavior. I have this goddamn conscience I never bargained on. Although I still do it, I can no longer cheat, steal, or lie as easily as I used to, and I certainly can't enjoy it the same way. I cannot rationalize my complicity in evil so well, either. When I do those things, it eats away at the back of my brain, and it devours my serenity. I feel . . . not exactly guilty . . . self-destructive. I feel (although, thank heaven, on a smaller scale) that dread.

Wanting freedom from that terror, in essence, is why I want to fight the good fight. I like as much as anybody else to feel good about myself, to feel proud of myself, to feel like I'm one of the good guys, to posture my goodness to other people. Sure. But what I really want is just the experience of feeling okay, not feeling bad or ashamed or like one of the bad guys. And I console myself with the message that sometimes, taking care of myself, keeping my own self off the streets, is part of the solution. At the same time, though, I'm aware that this is something of a rationalization too.

What Makes Me Different from Eichmann?

Arendt spends a lot of time in her book developing the character of Eichmann, to demonstrate his normalcy. The scary thing about reading about Eichmann's normalcy and his lack of a conscience regarding his part in the extermination of the Jews is that one can understand exactly how Eichmann lost his conscience. It's still there; he just silenced it, by not listening to it long enough for it to get buried under layer and layer of rationalization and self-deception, until he could no longer hear it. When I was drinking, I didn't go directly to the Bowery. I got there by getting used to progressively worse levels of self-destruction and degradation. Since I quit drinking, I have passed through an analogous progression in the opposite direction, toward health. But I could reverse the tide, if I started drinking again.

I don't want to wake up one day and discover that all along I was evil on a pathetic scale. I want to be a hero. And heroism, like evil, plays out among small matters. It is in the realm of the banal that one becomes a devil or a saint.

Copyright © 1996
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