In her most famous book, _Eichmann in Jerusalem_, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Eichmann, who enabled one of the greatest genocides of all time, did not act from personal hatred of Jews or Gypsies, or because he was overtly, inherently evil according to Arendt. He acted because he believed in following the law and doing his job well. He did evil, but was not evil - he simply absented his own moral responsbility, and did his job, regardless of its consequences, seeking promotion and to do well by the standards of his day. If that job meant killing millions of Jews, well...ah well.
What was important about Arendt's book is the notion that ordinary people, acting in ordinary ways could do vast evil. We tend to think of evil as psychopathic, recognizable, like a cartoon villain. Arendt pointed out that evil happens when ordinary people choose not to recognize the moral qualities of their actions.
It is a painful thing to recognize, as we must, that right now, Adolf Eichmann lives in our houses. He is us, and we are he. That is, the ordinary life that we are living right now is the cause of more harm than any Nazi ever committed. We are committing genocide all over the world by warming the planet. 1.5 billion people stand to lose their drinking water over the next century. Up to 2 billion risk famine. More than 2 billion will be displaced. We can expect 30 million to die of diseases that are gradually moving north. The people most at risk are mostly poor, many women, many non-white. Whole nations of people stand to be killed or turned into refugees. The Nazis managed to kill only 11 million people. We stand to make them look like pikers.
And we do it every day in our living rooms, in our cars, in our schools, at our jobs. Over the second half of the 20th century, there has been the gradual increase of the notion that beaurocrats, those who kill people with a pen and never have to dirty their hands are not less morally responsible, but more so. There is a special circle of hell for those who do not dirty their hands.
And for every one of us who deplores an Eichmann, ordering Jews to the gas chambers, or Clinton watching Iraqi children starve to death, or a Rumsfeld ordering torture, should look carefully at ourselves, and think about how we are different. We too are killing people. We are doing it every morning as we drink our coffee. We too are killing people when we get into our cars to go to work. We are killing people as we do our jobs. We wonder what we have done to deserve this government that we have. And the answer is this - we have the government we can expect. For those who wash their hands of the acts they are responsible for, there is a special circle of hell indeed.
What is the answer? The answer is to stop obeying the law, the custom, going on the way we are. Arendt pointed out that Eichmann missed the whole point of Kant - he thinks the law is good because it is the law. But the law (or the custom, or the way we live) is only good if it is good, and it is moral, and if each man and woman allows their conscience, their moral sensibility to do a true accounting and judge, and take real responsbility.
Arendt famously said that it was always possible to resist the pressure to do evil. She argued,
"...under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."
There is no excuse for us to fail to resist. We must reduce our emissions individually and as a nation. Whenever anyone says to you, "one person cannot make a difference" remember this - some day you will face your children, or G-d, or your own conscience. Being able to do that, and say "I fought back" may be the greatest legacy you can leave. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we might also enable this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
I do not wish to see Eichmann in my mirror.