The Evil of Banality

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

In today’s news we saw the story of a 96 year old woman who was caught fleeing before her trial for aiding and abetting mass murder in a Nazi concentration camp. She had served as a typist during her late teens and was responsible for transcribing execution orders drafted by commandant Paul-Werner Hoppe.

My initial impression was that it must’ve been dreadful to carry that burden for nearly eight decades. Can you imagine that? If you can’t, you might usefully take a moment to do so for a number of reasons.

You may recall from history class Churchill’s statement that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” What may not have ben explained, however, is how best to learn from history. One of the best ways to learn from history is to consider yourself as the perpetrator and not the victim of the story.

Why is this important? Because you are capable of both and because you are more likely to find yourself presented with the role of the perpetrator than you are to be the victim.

Most can easily identify with the victim, as we’ve all faced bullies, haters, accusers, and detractors, but we are much less prone to dwell upon, recall, or recount the times where we slipped into the role of a perpetrator or evildoer. The reality is, however, we’ve likely been both.

What is most surprising to me about the worst atrocities of our time is not that they happened, for such is to be expected in the disconnected state in which we live, but that they were aided and abetted by normal, ordinary people like you and me who would be considered good, productive, thoughtful citizens by just about any standard (e.g., policeman, teachers, farmers, etc.). What presses most upon my heart in regards to this story and so many like it is that the evil of banality is more insidious and more destructive than the banality of evil.

This desperate and terrified German nonagenarian could have been you or could have been me. Moreover, it can be you or it can be me in the days come. No, you say? You would never stoop to such things? You would resist? You would speak out? If our hearts and minds are not sufficiently armed with gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness even the darkest darkness can appear to be reasonable.

We stop loving our neighbor in little ways, mostly. It begins with petty grievances and fear of minor differences of opinion, perspective, and vision. Left to fester, the subtle pettiness slowly evolves into overt, unapologetic, and unbridled animosity. Such is the stuff of wars and rumors of wars.

Love your neighbor as yourself and as Jordan Peterson wisely advises: “treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” The line that divides the perpetrator and the victim runs through all human hearts and there is an open casting for both roles in every scene of every drama in life.

If history is a guide, thinking we are immune to the worst in ourselves is as foolish as hoping that we will be ready I take the high road without deliberate and regular practice. Love your neighbor, regularly. Forgive their trespasses, completely. Train as if your life depends upon it, because it does.

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