Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and worry that maybe you’re part of the Evil Empire? I ask because I’ve been re-reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a controversial essay on the story of Adolf Eichmann, who was at the time standing trial in Israel for war crimes. Eichmann in Jerusalem was controversial for one reason: it was where the phrase “banality of evil” first appeared, in describing the actions of Eichmann. You see, Eichmann was a key component of the Final Solution, and largely held accountable for these actions of mechanized death, but he wasn’t a blood-drenched psychopath. Rather, he was a not over-bright, sociable, companionable man, the sort you might find yourself accidentally talking to in an airport lounge. Eichmann liked cream cakes and long walks. He also, incidentally it seems, was instrumental in the deaths of several million people.
Hannah Arendt made the claim that there was nothing particularly offensive about Eichmann; instead of being a hateful, malevolent entity of pure evil, he was just a guy. He showed neither pride in, or remorse for, his actions. to him, they had simply been the machinations of state, no more of consequence that administrating a tax system or issuing passports. They were the law.
To return for a moment to my opening question with Eichmann in mind, do you ever worry you’re part of the Evil Empire? It’s hard to imagine. After all, most of us aren’t involved in any kind of action that takes lives. We just do what we do, day to day. Yet it’s true that we English-speaking nations are part of a large force in world history: a coalition that’s made war on tiny, defenceless countries, initiated drone strikes in countries we’re “friends” with, denied aid to those that need it and flattered dictatorships for oil, gold and sugar cane. How will history judge us? Are we, in the last analysis, collaborating with the enemy.
This is a tricky question and one that illustrates the subjectivity of evil. We who are the victors end up writing history, and so we appear (and have appeared) just, noble, and motivated by grand ideas. But the Nazis thought that about themselves, too. Moral relativism’s a bitch like that.
Moral relativism often stray into television and film, though it’s often absent where it should be present. Nazis are the prime example of a plot-device shortcut, the antagonistic equivalent of a McGuffin. You don’t need to describe or explain what the Nazis are doing or what they hope to achieve. It’s enough that they’re Nazis. This can be seen all over the place: Stephen Spielberg used to use it frequently enough for it to pass into the rarified field of the Trope. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the eponymous raiders are Nazis and they’re raiding the shit out everything in search of the lost Ark. Why? Who cares. They’re Nazis. You don’t need to go any deeper.
But looking for deep moral truths in Indiana Jones movies is an exercise in pointlessness (actually, not to deviate from the point massively, but the most morally significant movie I see recently was 2006’s The Bucket List – you know, where Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are dying of cancer and go off and do stuff? It occurred to me that Jack Nicholson had previously played Satan in The Witches of Eastwick, and Morgan Freeman had previously played God in Bruce Almighty, and that the film could be interpreted as God and the Devil taking corporeal form to explore evil, temptation, redemption and The Human Condition. I would recommend you watch that film through fresh eyes). If you want an essay in moral relativism, look no further than Showtime’s Dexter, now trundling into its eighth series with smoke coming from under the hood and flames licking the interior. Dexter has always been a) bloody good fun, and that pun was intended, and b) a really serious piece of philosophical drama. The character of Dexter Morgan presents significant issues for the viewer. He’s a family man, a nice guy and a member of his community, and he also happens to suffer an unbearable compulsion to murder people. Or, rather, that’s one way of stating it: the other way is to say that he’s a gleeful serial killer who does what he can to fit in and avoid detection. The central premise of previous seasons of Dexter has been his balancing of good and evil – feeding his addiction without it hurting his loved ones. Season Eight begins with all that shattered: the conclusion of last season involved his sister shooting someone to save his life. Unfortunately this destroys the central premise of the whole show. Dexter is a hard character to empathize with if his actions actually cause harm to the innocent, rather than the guilty. The veil between good and evil is a very thin one, but crossing through it is a one-way trip. The transition here is one from Chaotic Neutrality, a position that requires good actions to temper the bad, to Chaotic Evil, a position that causes harm to everyone.
Initially Dexter was a character trying to be good in spite of his evil nature, tempering evil actions with a moral code that, if not righteous, at least attempted to systematize evil. The character progression has travelled in the opposite direction of the expected, with our protagonist now, if anything, an antagonist. This transcendence happened by small increments, illustrating the banality of evil.
In truth, there are no easy answers, as illustrated perfectly by Hannibal. Comparing Dexter to Hannibal is unfair – it’s like comparing chocolate box paintings to Picasso – but the fact that both are named after a villainous character and offer different spins on the same moral problem is significant. Most of the first series of the latter led the viewer down a garden path to a frightening revelation: we didn’t like the main character as much as we thought we did. For Dexter it took eight years to accomplish this feat, for Hannibal, eight episodes. We know, as we should, that Hannibal is a truly frightening character: a serial killer and cannibal who laughs at the law. Yet his personality is magnetic, the advice and help he doles out to the other main characters useful and necessary, and he’s just so damn charming that you can’t help but forgive him for turning rude people into Veal cutlets. It’s only in the very last episode, where we see that Hannibal Lecter has been playing a long game with the goal of putting Will Graham in prison. We thought they were friends. We thought that Hannibal was a neutral force. But when he sees Graham in shackles and a fetching orange jumpsuit, he smiles. And we realize, in that moment, that Hannibal has never been anything but a malevolent force, we perceive the fine line between good, neutrality and evil. We recognise evil in its banality.
What these cultural lodestones illustrate is an important point: there are no good people, only good actions. Or, to rephrase it, evil is not a thing that can be grasped. It is intangible. The Nazis were not the seething, gibbering maniacs we thought they were. They were men and women who couldn’t (as none of us can, in the end) perceive the subtlety of evil. Dexter Morgan, who could have served as the avatar of the neutral man, slipped into true evil almost as an afterthought. Hannibal Lecter, a man we would think of as cultured and, if not righteous, at least bound by some moral law, is revealed as a true monster. Evil as a thing is often so subtle we can’t see it and, all too often, as Nietzsche said, it is by fighting monsters that we become monsters ourselves.