In 1962 I attended portions of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. The experience was bewildering. There, behind bullet-proof glass, sat Eichmann, intently listening through headphones to the ghastly evidence, and adding to it with every interjection he made. Apparently sane and self-possessed, he had no idea of the enormity of his crime, talking about it as though mass murder were a part of everyday life. The sight and sound of the man encased in bullet-proof glass misled Hannah Arendt into coining the phrase “The banality of evil.” This has a journalistic ring about it, but it has consistently irritated me. There was nothing banal about Eichmann and the solemnity of his trial was a milestone for humanity.
With Eichmann in front of me, I questioned the death penalty. To take a person’s life, even after due process and a fair trial, is a fearful deed, seeming to overpower taboo and the instinct to respect one’s fellow men. A day came when his appeal was heard. I was in court. The judge was quoting this and that precedent in international law, and suddenly, without ceremony or pause, he rejected the appeal. Eichmann was escorted away. Everyone else gathered in the small square outside the court, all of us silent, a few in tears. After quite a short time, the news came through, again without ceremony, that he had been hanged. To my surprise, the sun immediately seemed brighter, the sky more blue, the earth cleaner, and I realized that I do not in fact question the death penalty for mass murder.
These responses resurfaced this morning with a surge of emotion at the news that Saddam Hussein has gone to the gallows as once Eichmann had. In the course of his trial, he too had condemned himself with every word he spoke, equally oblivious to the enormity of his crimes, as though mass murder answered to his job description. Anyone who holds that such men really are banal, and shouldn’t pay with their lives for the evil they do, must further explain how justice is to be done to the victims.