The Banality of Evil and the National Security Agency

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS300

The banality of evil, the colloquial name for a theory put forth by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem bears forth a somewhat more nuanced theory than the popular understanding gives it credit for. The popular understanding of this theory is that evil is in some cases just pure careerism and a strong following of the institution in which they exists' rules. This isn't wrong, and Arendt did put forth this critique of Adolf Eichmann, but it does miss a few things. Chiefly among those things is what Arendt found most key, and that is what is involved with the definition of thinking. A critique she made explicit was the question of what it really means to think. She argued that it required not just the sort of ramblings or internal dialogue that we mostly associate with "thinking", but specifically rational, critical, introspective thought about the morality of the actions being undertaken or the decisions being made. It was key to her that there be some removal of self during this reflection, where one might step out of our own shoes and try to judge the situation with a rational mind. This focus on the rational mind was introduced because during the trial Eichmann spent quite some time justifying his actions using Kantian rationality, while simultaneously contradicting himself by being obedient to orders given to him (completely contrary to Kant's idea of rational thought) (Butler). She specifically ridiculed Eichmann for not being a thinking being, by her definition, because according to her, no thinking being would plot genocide. Additionally, she critiques the Jewish court for doing exactly what Eichmann claims to do, which is following the rules too closely and not maintaining a political flexibility in handing down rulings, for what is in this case an unprecedented crime (maxwell). It is within this critical introspection/rational critique frame (or lack thereof) that I wish to apply this concept of the banality of evil to the National Security Agency regarding the world-scale mass surveillance of the Internet, and the actions of Agency workers which have continued this affront to Human Rights.

The surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency have been well reported, due primarily to the transmission of internal memos, documents, and technical presentations delivered from inside the NSA by a third party contractor named Edward Snowden, to two journalists, namely Laura Poitras and Glen Greenwald. As the details of these programs have been slowly released to the public by these journalists, it is becoming clearer and clearer that, through the mass scale abuse of human rights (of which privacy is one, in the US Constitution, in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and reaffirmed in the recently passed UN General Assembly resolution "The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age"), the National Security Agency and its workers (the individuals who carry out the orders) have, on the face of it, no public introspection into their actions.

Most of the Agency's public responses to individual leaks have been either through their press department, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, or the Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander, and have been comprised of highly qualified and narrow denials of culpability, usually centering around the legality of the program, and not the morality, rationality, or efficacy. Due to how agency responses are wrapped in the cloak of National Security concerns, little can be seen about individual actors inside the agencies, excepting Snowden, Alexander, and Clapper. In one of the few cases where (dis)provable numbers were put forth by Mr. Alexander, it was confirmed later by him that they were fabricated (Brinkerhoff).

What we can see of those agency actions, however, is a persistent attempt to subvert Human Rights in the name of National Security. This, on the face of it, is somewhat similar to the actions of Adolf Eichmann from Eichmann in Jerusalem, where he is on trial for assisting with the design and implementation of what is now known as the Final Solution in Nazi Germany, the goal of which was to completely exterminate the Jews. The Jews were painted as a threat to the sanctity and security of the nation of Germany at the time, and thus something to be subjugated (and later eliminated). Keith Alexander wraps the justifications for the actions of his agency in similar terms: "From my perspective, the threats are growing. […] The crisis in the Middle East is growing. And the threat to us from terrorist activities or safe havens and those being radicalized are growing. […] So we have to find out what is the right way for our nation to defend ourselves and our allies and protect civil liberties and privacy." In other words we must do what is necessary to secure the nation, which for the NSA means spying on absolutely everything, even if it means violating the fundamental Human Rights of the other 7 billion people on earth, with a nod to the civil liberties and privacy of Americans. This is a fairly straight forward implication of a foreign intelligence agency being tasked or tasking itself with knowing what everyone on earth is saying and doing. This implies that General Alexander didn't think about that implication, doesn't care, or is aware of it and actively works to see it happen. As he is the director and thus ultimately responsible for the agency's actions, it can only follow that he is both culpable for, and aware of, this situation.

The similarity between the two cases is that in both situations the people involved seek to uphold the structure of which they are an actor, without question, against the interests of a large group of people. In Eichmann's case, Arendt notes that "… the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think" (Arendt, 1971). This is exactly where the phrase "banality of evil" comes from, because from Arendt's perspective Eichmann was a perfectly ordinary person with a perfectly ordinary past, who just happened, through not thinking even once about what he was doing, to design and implement the system that assisted in the extermination of almost 6 million Jews. Keith Alexander, in his own words: "First, NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. Those acts and tools that we do are to connect what we know about foreign intelligence to what's going on here in the United States. We need tools to bring that together. I want to talk briefly about some of those tools. And some of those tools, like Section 215, in my opinion, and I think in the court's, are constitutional. We're authorized by Congress. They're legal. They're necessary. And they've been effective." [sic] (Alexander). As was noted previously, there is a focus on whether or not these "tools", the programs the NSA uses to collect information, are legal. There is no questioning, on Alexander's part, about whether they are moral, whether they are for the betterment of the nation, or so. He continues on, dicing away at concerns about exactly what the programs do narrowly, without addressing the meat of the public's outrage involving the massive privacy invasion this collection of programs represents. "There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots. And so that's gets us back to do we not do that at all? Given that the threat is growing, I believe that is an unacceptable risk to our country" (Alexander). This narrowly qualified support of all his agency does is emblematic of the unthinking, structure supporting behavior Arendt observed, and critiqued heavily.

So, then it must be asked: Does Keith Alexander, in Arendt's frame, count as a person? If he does not, then he fits the theory of being banal evil. To count as a person, he must think. Does he think, in Arendt's terms? To think he must assess the decisions he makes in some sort of a distanced, moralist view, with consideration and empathy for whom his actions affect. "Eichmann was able to give and carry out orders of genocide because he lacked the imagination to understand emotionally the consequences of his actions. If he had acted out of hatred, this would, ironically, have made him human or at least someone with whom most of us could identify. Hatred acknowledges that there is a person to hate. What was inhuman was the absence of hatred – an absence that signified the annihilation of the other" (Covington). "Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motivation at all …He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing" (Arendt, 1963, p.287). These two qualifiers together, no recognition of the other, and not realizing what was happening, are a good baseline for answering this question. As General Alexander describes the people affected by the actions of his agency using vague, negative phrases like "terrorist" or "threats" or "bad actors" or "those being radicalized", it cannot be said he recognizes these "others" as real people (Alexander). I would argue that Gen. Alexander fits the second qualifier as well, because his voice only exists on behalf of the organization – what I mean by that is, there is no personal voice of Keith Alexander presented anywhere, he is but a spokesperson for the NSA and nothing other, when in public. He fits only within the confines of the role he has in the organization, and defends that structure because it's his job to do so. This is direct, unquestioning, unthoughtful, careerism, just as Arendt noted. That makes Alexander not count as a full, critically thinking, human in Arendt's terms.

General Alexander, representative of the National Security Agency and its policies, defends his agency to the fullest, seeking to uphold the structure with which he is employed. He justifies the efficacy of his organization with vague statistics he later admits are fabricated. He extremely narrowly articulates the legality of the agency's actions, and not the morality or justness of them. He leads an organization which persistently subverts human rights the world round, and stands up in front of congress and defends (again, narrowly) these subversions. He is not publicly a thinker, in Arendt's terms, as he expresses only support for what the agency does, and does no critical thought about the actions, no moral introspection about the programs he is ultimately responsible for. This makes the National Security Agency, and its dually appointed head, fit the theory of the banality of evil.

Works Cited

Alexander, Keith. "As Delivered Opening Remarks of General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency." IC ON THE RECORD. N.p., 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. link.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem; a Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking, 1963. 287. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture. New York: Social Research, 1971. 417. Print.

Assy, Bethania. "Eichmann, the Banality of Evil, and Thinking in Arendt's Thought." (n.d.): n. pag. 20th WCP: Eichmann, the Banality of Evil, and Thinking in Arendt's Thought. 1996. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Brinkerhoff, Noel. "NSA Director Alexander Admits He Lied about Phone Surveillance Stopping 54 Terror Plots." AllGov, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. link.

Butler, Judith. "Hannah Arendt's Challenge to Adolf Eichmann." Guardian News and Media, 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013. link.

Covington, Coline. "Hannah Arendt, Evil and the Eradication of Thought." The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 93.5 (2012): 1215-236. 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Maxwell, Lida. "Toward an Agonistic Understanding of Law: Law and Politics in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem." Contemporary Political Theory (2011): 88-108. Print.