By the time you read this new facts will have emerged, but this is what we know so far. Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old young man, leaves his father’s fiancee’s house, buys a pack of Skittles and an Arizona ice tea then heads home. En route, George Zimmerman – a neighborhood watch cop– notices Trayvon ‘walking around and looking about’. Zimmerman calls the police, reports what he sees, and against advice from the dispatcher continues to follow Trayvon. Between this telephone call and the arrival of the police, Zimmerman kills Trayvon in “self-defense”. Testimony from witnesses, the 911 transcripts and other facts make this claim suspicious, but he has yet to be charged with a crime.
George Zimmerman is 28 years old and weighs 250 lbs. Trayvon Martin was 17 and weighed 140 lbs. Zimmerman was armed with a 9mm handgun. Trayvon was unarmed. Mr. Zimmerman has a history of violence having been arrested for battering an officer and accused of using aggressive tactics by neighbors in his subdivision. Trayvon had no criminal record. Mr. Zimmerman’s fixation is crime and young, black male suspects according to the people under his watch. Trayvon’s was sports and ‘cheerfulness’ according to one of his teachers. Trayvon’s image stares at us full of life and promise. Zimmerman’s is sort of dull, sort of menacing, but mostly vacant. This is not to say that Zimmerman is not an evil man. He almost certainly is, but when we think of ‘evil’ in terms of intent or magnitude we lose ourselves. Evil is often enabled by bad processes and laws, which brings me to Adolf Eichmann.
The trial of Adolf Eichmann was one of several ‘trials of the century’. Eichmann was a German born, Austrian raised Nazi and Lt. Colonel in the SS. As an expert on the so-called ‘Jewish question’ he was responsible for coordinating the deportations and executions of millions of Jews. After the war he escaped first to Italy, then to Argentina, where he lived with his family until 1960, when he was captured by the Israeli secret police –Mossad – and taken back to Israel to answer for his crimes.
Eichmann was not the first, nor the last high profile Nazi to be captured, but his case was disturbing in a somewhat unique way. Writer Hannah Arendt wrote the definitive account of the trial – ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ – and popularized a phrase that is particularly useful for our analysis – ‘the banality of evil’, which stands in sharp contrast to what we can perhaps call ‘charismatic evil’. What was so striking about Eichmann was how un-striking he was. He was not a degenerate or sociopath or megalomaniac like many of his predecessors. He did not feign ignorance or insanity or a sudden religious conversion when captured like others. He was a ‘normal’ man with ‘some positive ideas’, according to psychiatrists which made it hard to understand ‘why’ he had done what he had done, but another fact made it much harder to understand ‘how’ he had done what he had done. Eichmann was an imbecile.
There were many times during the trial that Eichmann spoke as if his efficiency or officiousness were in question rather than his complicity in mass murder. So, at several points he admitted to the latter to defend the former. When questioned about an order that he received in 1944 to stop deportations and murders – an order he ignored – he pointed out that the order was contrary to the Fuhrer’s verbal edicts which were law, so he felt obligated to continue killing. He pointed out on more than one occasion that his organizational gifts had helped his victims by ending their suffering more quickly. He spoke tenderly of a visit with a Mr. Storfer – a Jewish community leader imprisoned in Auschwitz – whom Eichmann was unable to free, nor save from execution, yet Eichmann spoke of the ‘inner joy’ he felt during their ‘normal human encounter’. In an effort to bond with one of his Israeli guards, Eichmann reminisced about his own career and his failed efforts to be transferred to one of the mobile killing units – the Einsatzgruppen – because his office was ‘dead’ and he wanted to be where the action was. Many who watched the trial wondered how such a pathetic man could have caused so much destruction. The answers were of course power and bigotry and appeasement on the part of the Reich’s enemies, but what truly enabled Eichmann and men of his ilk were ‘laws’.
When German law specifically authorized the deportation of Jews from occupied Austria to Israel – Eichmann facilitated it. When it demanded mass executions, Eichmann facilitated it. One of the common traits of stupid, evil men is that they desperately love and admire authority figures and the law – Eichmann repeatedly complimented the judge during his trial – so they do not think for themselves. Civilizations in ascent recognize this and constrain these men through laws; ones in decline enable them.
George Zimmerman had no business being armed and patrolling his neighborhood, but the law was on his side. He had no business attempting to detain Trayvon, but the law was on his side. He had no business killing him, but for now the law remains on his side. A slavish dedication to 2nd amendment orthodoxy, ‘stand your ground laws’ and small government have allowed many states to give armed civilians more power than law enforcement. A policeman would have had to wait for backup before attempting to detain Trayvon. A policeman would have had the training to use deadly force if necessary, but the legal obligation to justify its use. George Zimmerman on the other hand could go about cleansing his neighborhood and making sure the ‘assholes’ did not get away. We must now do the same to he and his enablers.Suggested Reading: Eichmann in Jersualem by Hannah Arendt Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial