"The deeds were monstrous, but the doer . . . was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous."
-- Hannah Arendt,
"The Life of the Mind"
The banality of evil that Hannah Arendt glimpsed in Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann lives on in this visual age. It emerges from surveillance photographs of four terrorism suspects in London that were splashed across the world's television screens, Internet sites and newspapers earlier this month.
Those police photos, as did Eichmann's words and appearance during his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, show the face of evil as all too human and surprisingly mediocre -- a face not of mysterious supernatural forces that we cannot comprehend or combat, but one of petty criminality and hatred that we can easily recognize. In that sobering reality are reasons for comfort, and for anguish.
What you saw in the surveillance photographs released July 22 of the would-be assassins may well be different from what I saw. Two of the four "looked" to me as if they came from East Africa (I once lived there) and, as I remarked, one in particular resembled Somalis I had known.
He turned out to be Yasin Hassan Omar, arrested on Wednesday and identified as an ethnic Somali. Police also then identified Muktar Said Ibrahim, an Eritrean immigrant who was arrested Friday along with the two other bombing suspects shown in the photos. The two men fully identified by police come from violent homelands -- not comfortable British circumstances -- and have records as a petty criminal (Ibrahim) or unemployed loser (Omar). That is, in a way, reassuring.
But I was doing on July 22 exactly what the London police did that same day as they pursued Jean Charles de Menezes into a London subway car and shot him to death: I was jumping to conclusions about who, and what, these four men were on the basis of past experiences and current information.
That is, I was profiling them, and I would be amazed if you were not doing the same if you were looking at those photos -- or perhaps at the other passengers about to board the same plane as you the last time you flew anywhere.
Those London police officers carried in their heads an image of how a suicide bomber looks and acts, and the image cost the life of Menezes, a Brazilian electrician who it is said made the multiple mistakes of living in a suspect location, wearing a padded coat in warm weather and bolting when the police challenged him. In fact, he turned out to look little like that face of evil we have now seen in those other pictures.
The police descriptions of the incident suggest that the officers on the scene relied on a subliminal racial and kinetic profile to make a life-and-death decision in an instant. They made a tragic -- but understandable -- error. Like the rest of us, they are a product of their times.
We increasingly rely on visual information communicated so quickly that there is little time for comprehension or reasoning, much less context, to guide our reactions. The consequences of police action on this basis tend to be far more serious than the actions of citizens at large, of course. But the actions themselves occur in a similarly compressed environment.
The visual nature of politics, information and thought today contributes greatly to the force that terrorist attacks -- and attackers -- exert on Western societies. The endless replaying on television of the Sept. 11 airliners flying into the World Trade Center towers, or of the devastating boom at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in Egypt a week ago, or of the latest car bombing in Baghdad, makes the threat seem endless and omnipresent.
To glimpse Yasin Hassan Omar and others as the shiftless punks they seem to have been for most of their lives -- to put a name and a face on evil rather than resign ourselves to endless speculation about the motives and long-lost origins of these criminals' grievances -- should help shrink the sense of menace we feel around us.
As Hannah Arendt argued in her word portrait of Eichmann as the bureaucrat of genocide, the banality of evil forces each of us to recognize our duty and our ability to resist and overcome those who would -- through ignorance, frustration, thoughtlessness or intent -- destroy us. They are human; so are we.
What set Eichmann apart was his ability not to think seriously about what he was doing, as professor Bethania Assy has emphasized in her work on Arendt. As we learn more about the bombers and their acolytes in Baghdad, Bali or London, we are likely to discover that the same is true of them.