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Could Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book influence the Boston Marathon bombing trial and coverage?

In 'Eichmann in Jerusalem,' Hannah Arendt portrayed the SS officer as a self-deluded functionary whose mindset allowed him to facilitate murders on a massive scale. Would anyone argue the same for those who murder in the name of jihad?

By Joseph H. CooperContributor / July 25, 2013

In the view of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was unjustly executed for crimes he had not conceived. Eichmann, she argued, was merely acting as a good soldier.


With legal proceedings against both alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and alleged Fort Hood shooter Army Maj. Nidal Hasan moving forward, questions about the culpability of those who murder in the name of a cause may again become the subject of debate.

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In the court martial of Hasan, at Fort Hood, the accused has already proclaimed that he was acting in the defense of his beliefs.  And in Boston, Tsarnaev’s lawyers have entered “not guilty” pleas to the 30-count indictment. Might either or both try to explain and justify their actions as responses to “a higher calling”? And to what extent might a reporter take up such equivocations and evasions – and rally sympathy for the defense by castigating the prosecution and the judges?

That's what happened 50 years ago. Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, found fault with and ridiculed the prosecutors and judges in the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust facilitator Adolf Eichmann, as well as with the prosecutors and judges at the Nuremberg Trials. Writing for The New Yorker (Arendt's pieces were later published in the 1963 book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"), Arendt portrayed Eichmann as self-deceiving and cliché-bound.

And yet she found his plea creditable:  “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.”  In her view, he was unjustly executed for crimes he had not conceived. Eichmann, she argued, was merely acting as a good soldier. 

Arendt was not a detached, objective chronicler.  She was not a lawyer or an experienced court reporter.  While "Eichmann in Jerusalem" had the veneer of scholarship, it was rightly reviled upon publication.  And of course in the crowded field of 21st-century media coverage, no commentator can command the reportorial field the way Arendt did in 1963. 

And yet, I wonder: Will Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann and his mindset seduce 21st-century writers?  Has it done so already?

Hasan stands accused of taking the lives of 13 and seriously wounding nearly three dozen others. He has declared that he is a “Soldier of Allah” who was “defending the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar.”  The US Defense Department and the US Justice Department may have helped the accused articulate that “defense” by characterizing his shooting rampage as “workplace violence.”

As to Tsarnaev, Rolling Stone has given him cover-boy status.  His scribbled rant about US evil is given broad circulation in an infamous cover story.

According to Arendt, Eichmann was simply “acting in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew of his action, would approve it.”  By analogy, or extrapolation, those who kill in the name of jihad may claim that they acted in a way that a particular ayatollah cleric would approve:  “For jihad, thou shalt kill.” 


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