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 , Contributor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.” 

How much typeface should be allotted to defendants who declare that they cannot be judged by laws of men, but only by their convictions, their faith, and their god?  The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom and precludes government (through law enforcement, legislation, or the judiciary) from interfering with the exercise of religious beliefs.  Would someone actually propose that the First Amendment’s protections extend to being faithful and obedient to religious protocols, commandments, and convictions – higher orders – that dictate and commend killings?

Arendt wrote extensively about Eichmann’s childhood and his initially undistinguished career path – his aspirations, delusions, and disappointments – even as some in today’s press have summoned the personal histories of both Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers. Could their reputed struggles, frustrations, disappointments, slights, and indignities be viewed as extenuating circumstances?  Can evil be mitigated by sociological and psychological dispensation?

Because Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was initially published in installments in The New Yorker, it was edited by William Shawn, the magazine’s venerated editor. Yet Arendt's collection of facts and semi-facts, hearsay, recollections, accounts, suppositions, exculpations, exonerations, red-herrings, and blame-shifting “scholarship” were not sufficiently tamed editorially.

I was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1994 and I read every manuscript Mr. Shawn bought for publication during those years.  Arendt’s sheaf of onion-skin pages arrived on his desk 14 years before I got there.  Still, my impressions may be telling.  It seemed to me that Shawn was timid in dealing with female writers.  Not as to the grammar, syntax, and art of their manuscripts, but as to their personalities and assertions – timid in questioning their methods, procedures, processes; their predispositions and assumptions.

As to Arendt’s manuscript, Shawn’s edits and queries were not as exacting and challenging as they might have been.  And the book version did not pick up on his deletions and fixes – the places where he tempered and reined in her contempt, accusations, and condemnations.

Shawn traveled the world through his writers but, to my knowledge, (by the 1970s, anyway) his voyages, in the main, were between his Fifth Avenue apartment and the magazine’s midtown office, spelled – in the summer months – by daily journeys to the office from a Bronxville, N.Y., vacation rental.  He trusted his writers. And in 1962 and 1963 when he was going over Arendt’s work, there was, to be sure, no Google or other Internet search engine to aid the checking process.

The manuscript’s extensive bibliography and attributions were surely impressive and daunting.  From what I heard, the piece’s fact-checker did not have the time or the resources – and neither the mandate or the “portfolio” – to challenge what Arendt had delivered.  The manuscript was so long that it had to be published in five issues.  Also, at any time, did Arendt ever fully disclose that she had not attended all the trial sessions?  I don’t know the answer.

So, with the indulgence of Shawn and the deference of her publisher, what can be found today on library bookshelves is an example of journalistic wrongdoing that could be useful to lawyers who defend those who kill for jihad.

What about those alleged to have aided and abetted the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001; the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole?  What about those who are alleged to have impeded the work of investigators following the Boston Marathon bombing by hiding or destroying clues and incriminating material?

Could they find shelter and dispensation in Arendt’s reporting? Will “Eichmann in Jerusalem” provide a precedent and a template for such exculpatory thinking and “reporting”?

I can only hope not.

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996.

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