Art exists to stimulate its audience to provoke thought and stir viewers to consider what they believe and why. Good film art is literature. It is the story of a time, a record of events that draws viewers in as thinking, feeling participants; it stimulates reflection and comparison with one’s contemporary physical and intellectual world. Journalistic documentaries are also art—their purpose to take us beyond the boundaries of factually researched accounts on the written page.
Two powerful films playing in theatres across the country right now depict entirely different times and events, yet draw strong parallels. They evoke the possibility that themes of history are repeating themselves. German director, Margarethe Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, is an artistic depiction of a period in the life of the renowned namesake scholar. The other is director Rick Rowley and journalist Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars—an investigative documentary set in current time.
When events are in the past, we have the safety of having survived them, of having moved on and beyond them. We name, label, explain; our leaders, who are in control of what is to be remembered as mainstream, command the best writers among us to rewrite past events to suit our level of comfort culturally and/or to advance a political agenda. The works of those who write uncomfortable truths are often buried in the annals of the dark corners to be forgotten. Hannah Arendt wrote uncomfortable truths and she was punished, but she was not banished into the forgotten. Her powerful work has remained in human consciousness and is immediately retrievable in four words: the banality of evil.
The first half of the twentieth century and its two World Wars has been recorded and analyzed. Historians, academics, and religious and political thinkers have told us how the economic and political climate became ripe for Nazi Germany to rise up, grow powerful militarily, and proceed to invade all of Europe and beyond in their quest for world power. And within the institutionalized totalitarian system put in place to achieve dominance by the Nazi power elite, how a great evil of ethnic or religious cleansing was given birth and flourished into managed extermination of the unwanted. Some would analyze the emergence of this evil as a 2000 year-old hatred of the Jew latent in the entirety of the European Continent that emerged like a virus once a political cover allowed it. Of course, the unwanted also included anyone who posed political opposition.
Hannah Arendt’s work deals with the nature of power: of politics, direct democracy, authority, and totalitarianism. Arendt, born in 1906 into a secular German Jewish family, having been stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, escaped to France, only to be put into a French detention center by the Nazi-collaborating Vichy, and in 1941, escaped once again, this time with a visa to the U.S. The film about the famous German–American political theorist, writer, and lecturer focuses on the period of Arendt’s life when Adolph Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by the Israelis and taken to Israel to be tried for war crimes against humanity (1961). By then Arendt was a highly regarded academic for her essays and her widely acclaimed book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). When the famous Eichmann trial took place, Arendt, against the wishes and advice of her friends, traveled to Israel to cover the trial and wrote about it in a series of articles for The New Yorker, followed later by her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). For her ‘thinking’ and writing about what she observes, she paid a deep price, which is history in and of itself.
In his film review, Marc Ellis writes, “What the film makes clear is that Arendt wanted to encounter Eichmann in order to see what Eichmann, the mass murderer, was like in person. Was her encounter a way of testing how close her scholarly treatise on totalitarianism was to reality?
“In that Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt found a rather ordinary man, a faceless bureaucrat longing to obey orders and thereby rise in his career. What she did not find in Eichmann was hate, the motive of motives, or a viral anti-Semitism that would justify an eternity of thoughtless Jewish grandstanding.
“The Jewish establishment never forgave Arendt for the banality she found in Eichmann’s evil. Arendt never thought that the Nazi crimes were banal. When such an interpretation was suggested, Arendt became livid. What she saw in the Nazi crimes was humanity’s future, a future we were unprepared for, a future where crimes were committed by the state and where logical crime replaced crimes of passion.
“Arendt found Eichmann and the Nazis to be thoroughly modern. Or rather their barbarism was modernized. The Nazi machine at least was beyond emotion and beyond good and evil. No courtroom, least of all one organized by the people that such horrific crimes were committed against, had the capacity to judge such crimes.”
Indeed, in the film, Arendt points out that there are no laws, international or state, to prosecute the crimes committed by a bureaucracy, where evil was mechanized, with each person a cog doing its part, with no thinking or moralizing on the part of individuals who were merely carrying out their part. They were just following orders. Hence her coining of the phrase: the banality of evil. The actual footage of Eichmann testifying within his enclosed glass cage, meticulously cleaning his glasses, eerily drives this truth home.
Ellis goes on to write, “The Jewish establishment figures of her time opposed Arendt, deriding her as arrogant, unable to love herself as a Jew or show compassion for her own recently martyred people. As the film accurately portrays, however, Arendt is thinking through the ramifications of worldly events. This takes courage, though for Arendt courage is the least of it. Thinking is Arendt’s appointed task. It is essential to her being. What does courage have to do with thinking?
“Everything one admires about Hannah Arendt, we lack. This makes our American and Jewish politics shameful and those who practice it shameless. It has led us to dark corners of an imperialism so deep we have become unrecognizable to ourselves. But these are only examples of the deeper rot Hannah Arendt exposes.
“For Arendt, the failure of Jewish life was evident in Israel. She also found it in Europe during the Nazi years. In the film much of this is fast forwarded into the 1960s. In the controversy surrounding Arendt’s Eichmann trial reporting we see it through a prism of sensationalism that views anti-Semitism as eternal rather than political. Hence the loyalty the Jewish establishment demanded to a romanticized and militarized Jewishness. Arendt refused these demands.
“The film is a requiem tribute to a Jewish woman who lived a life of fully committed thought in the dark times she lived through and the dark times she predicted to come.
“What Arendt lived and predicted was the shutting down of the Jewish tradition of dissent in exchange for status and empire success in America and Israel.”
The film Dirty Wars takes us into the secret, but highly bureaucratized, post 9/11 never-ending War on Terror. We learn about how our nation’s laws have been upended, first by a Republican Administration under George W. Bush, only to be institutionalized and further upended by a Democratic Administration—both at the behest of a powerful behemoth known as the military industrial complex. Though not challenged in court, the Obama Administration now claims the right to kill American citizens who have not been charged with crimes, but only for allegedly speaking out in opposition to the U.S. Government and against the U.S. military. We learn that President Obama has a weekly meeting where he approves a ‘kill’ list of foreigners. We learn about drone signature strikes, where in remote Bedouin villages in Yemen we have killed over thirty people—all in secret. As of March 2013, 366 drone strikes have killed over 3,000 people, many of them civilians, including nearly 200 children. Some 314 of those drone strikes were carried out by order of the Obama Administration.
We learn that instead of shutting down black site prisons where people are held and tortured without being charged with a crime, we’ve opened up new proxy prisons in countries like Somalia.
We learn that a (previously) secret military entity known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), born “out of the ashes of the failed mission to rescue fifty-three American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, following the Islamic revolution of 1979”, has been marshaled and expanded to over 25,000, and unleashed as a killing machine charged with assassinations on a massive scale. And we see evidence on screen of the killing of innocent civilians—civilians who are considered collateral damage and whose lives have no apparent value. Called ‘night raids,’ these teams of bearded, heavily muscled and armed men in fatigues, not uniforms, break into homes and kill. We learn that these highly trained “assassins” are career soldiers whose sole role it is to hunt down and kill their deck of cards of high value targets (of thirty, fifty, or 3,000), often killing innocent people, including women and children. Dirty Wars documents eye-witness accounts of the soldiers digging bullets out of the deposed victims to cover up one of their botched crimes, and showing a photograph of Admiral William McRaven, the secret commander of JSOC, showing up at the home in Gardez, Afghanistan, where seven family members had been brutally murdered, ready to sacrifice a sheep as a gesture of good will in asking for forgiveness. But he does so only after relentless journalists exposed the crime and how the U.S. command attempted to cover it up and deny it.
We learn that these assassinations are taking place not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, where America has declared war, but in over seventy countries, many of which are among U.S. allied countries.
Now in our thirteenth year of war, with no end in sight, the parallel of a brutal nationalistic professional military, conducting global operations in secret, for a nation led astray by a powerful few, and without any transparency and oversight from the people, eerily resembles Arendt’s banality of evil. Does a drone operator, sitting in some remote location in Texas, in the most powerfully weaponized country on earth, feel responsible for the thirty Bedouins who will die in Yemen? Does the trained assassin feel the remorse of individual conscience as he shoots people in their beds? Or is the drone operator or Special Forces professional just following orders? If someday, they find themselves sitting in a bullet-proof glass cage being tried for war crimes, will they claim, like Eichmann did that they were just a cog in the bureaucratic machine of totalitarianism—that they were doing as they were trained to do, which was to follow orders?
In a final scene of Hannah Arendt, Arendt lectures to a packed hall of students that anyone who wishes to write about history has a duty to try to understand what makes ordinary people into tools of totalitarianism—of the banality of evil.
 Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University
In 1963 Hannah Arendt said that she had “been thinking for many years, or, to be specific, for thirty years, about the nature of evil.” (see Grafton document in Eichmann file ) It had been thirty years since the Reichstag, the German parliament, was burned in Berlin, an event followed immediately by the Nazis’ illegal arrests of thousands of communists and others who opposed them. Though innocent of any crime, those arrested were taken to concentration camps or the cellars of the recently organized Gestapo and subjected to what Arendt called “monstrous” treatment. With his political opposition effectively forestalled, Hitler could establish as a matter of policy the Jew-hatred that in his case was obvious to anyone who read Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the diatribe he dictated in prison and published in 1925. Which is to say that with the consolidation of Nazi power anti-Semitism ceased to be a social prejudice and became political: Germany was to be made judenrein , “purified” by first demoting Jews to the status of second class citizens, then by ridding them of their citizenship altogether, deporting them, and, finally, killing them. From that moment on Arendt said she “felt responsible.” But responsible for what? She meant that she, unlike many others, could no longer be “simply a bystander” but must in her own voice and person respond to the criminality rampant in her native land. “If one is attacked as a Jew,” she said, “one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”
The year was 1933. Within a few months Arendt was arrested, briefly detained for her work with a Zionist organization, and, when the opportunity presented itself, left Germany abruptly. After her stay in France and upon arriving in America in 1941, she wrote more than fifty articles for the German-Jewish weekly Der Aufbau addressing the plight and duty of Jews during World War II. Arendt first heard about Auschwitz in 1943, but with Germany’s defeat in 1945 incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Nazi “factories” of extermination came to light, and at that time information concerning slave labor installations in the Soviet Gulag also gradually emerged. Struck by the structural similarity of those institutions Arendt turned her attention to the function of concentration camps under totalitarian rule. Her analysis has to be read to be fully appreciated and only a few indications of its power and originality, and fewer of its subtlety, can be given here. (see The Origins of Totalitarianism , chapter 12, “Totalitarianism in Power”; “Concluding Remarks” from the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism ; “Social Science Techniques and the Study of Concentration Camps”; ” Die Menschen und der Terror ” [“Mankind and Terror”])
As was her wont Arendt offers an “elemental” account of the development of bureaucratically administered camps in which whole segments of populations were interned, and it is against that background that the unprecedented evil of the role of the camps in totalitarian systems of domination becomes manifest. Concentration camps were not invented by totalitarian regimes but were first used in the late nineteenth century by the Spanish in Cuba and the British during the Boer War (1899-1902). The equivocal legal concept of “protective custody”–referring to the protection either of society from those interned or of those interned from “the alleged ‘wrath of the people'”–which has always been used to rationalize and justify their existence was invoked by British imperial rule in India as well as South Africa. In World War I enemy aliens were regularly interned “as a temporary emergency measure,” (see “Memo: Research Project on Concentration Camps”) but later, in the period between World Wars I and II, camps were set up in France for non-enemy aliens, in this case stateless and unwanted refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Arendt also noted that in World War II internment camps for potential enemies of democratic states differed in one important respect from those of World War I. In the United States, for instance, not only citizens of Japan but “American citizens of Japanese origin” were interned, the former maintaining their rights of citizenship under the Geneva Conventions while the latter, uprooted on ethnic grounds alone, were deprived of theirs by executive order and without due process.
Although the containment and brutal elimination of political opposition was a factor in the camps established during the revolutionary stages of the rise to power of totalitarian movements, it is in the post-revolutionary period, when Hitler and Stalin had become the unopposed leaders of huge populations, that Arendt brought the camps into focus as entirely new phenomena. Their newness consisted in the determination of so-called “objective” enemies and “possible” crimes, and is borne out by the fact that not their existence but the conditions under which the camps operated were kept hidden from the German and Russian populations at large, including most members of the regimes’ hierarchies. She called the knowledge of what actually transpired in the camps the true secret of the secret police who in both cases administered them, and she wondered, disturbingly, about the extent to which that secret knowledge “corresponds to the secret desires and the secret complicities of the masses in our time.”
To continue reading, go to… Evil: The Crime against Humanity by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University
 Scahill, Jeremy: Dirty Wars, (Nations Books, Perseus Books Group), pg. 49