an epitaph for justice

banality of violence

We would like to believe that the world is dichotomous – a constant struggle between Good vs Evil. The world is easier to understand in these stark categories. Pure Goodness must mean there is Pure Evil; I must be in the forces of Light battling the forces of Darkness.

This Dualism, however comforting, is a heresy. The term banality of evil was proposed by Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, on the evil of a Nazi SS leader. Evil was not simply deeply manifested, but occurred through seemingly, uninteresting series of decisions. Ruha Benjamin spoke about a concept of bureaucratic violence when the family of Tamir Rice received an ambulance bill from the city government for their son who was murdered by city police officers.

A flawed understanding of theology is that we all have a little Nazi inside of us – that evil is simply waiting to manifest inside each and every one of us. A fuller understanding is that we all have the capability of doing violence, even through a series of banal decisions. The question of Evil can be understood as a distortion of Good. How often are evil, sinful acts interpreted, in the moment, as evil or sinful? The cleverness of the Serpent was the thread of truth within the Lie – “You will gain knowledge of good and evil”; “You are just doing your job.”

With the murder of Daniel Prude, one can see, in the aftermath, how a series of banal decisions that may seem easily justifiable in the moment are, in reality, deeply problematic. A note in red letters to change documentation on Daniel Prude that just says, “make him a suspect.” Language that euphemizes violence such as “stabilize the individual on the ground” and “the officers’ actions and conduct … appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.” Emails trying to delay release of body cam footage to avoid “misinterpretation.” Lies about an “enormous backlog of work” to explain the delay.

This is how systemic violence often occurs – not through deliberate intentions of evil, but unexamined intentions of good. One lie leading to another. One person’s banal action setting up another’s. One person’s silence permitting the violence of another. This is what it means to be complicit, and it is well within the capability of any of us to participate.

An honest question lies regarding the consequences to an individual who has participated in communal violence – can they be held personally responsible for any single action? Can anyone? Too often, we search for a scapegoat in the demand for justice, while none of the cogs of banality have changed. A sense of filial fallibility or culpability is likely just – leaders should be held accountable for how their leadership has permitted (or encouraged) such actions. However, what we must realize is that the real consequence occurs beyond the individual and to an entire community – a cultural separation from God.

Pope Francis has focused attention on how pervasive a Culture of Death exists amongst us. The murder of someone innocent is obvious. Even the murder of someone who is guilty is now also understood to be a part of the Culture of Death. The banal and bureaucratic violence exists as a foundation to these more explicit forms of violence. The Culture of Death is nourished by euphemistic language that dehumanizes violence; it is cultivated by a focus on self-protection instead of self-sacrifice. It exists because we justify little lies, distortions of truth, as a means to an end.

In the end, we are all held accountable for our actions. We are not exempt from unintended consequences of our actions. We must pursue a Culture of Life and our individual actions play a role in the development of such a culture. The first battle rages within ourselves, that we choose love over banal distortions. At the same time, we must remember that the responsibility is also beyond the individual. This is a communal responsibility to create and hold accountable systems to work for Life.