Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, The Banality of Evil, has been beaten into the ground from overuse. And so it should have been. For it’s not evil that’s banal, nor is it the criminals who commit evil acts. It’s the people who don’t understand it.
Take, for example, the events of July 28, 2006, when Naveed Haq, a Pakistani Muslim by origin, burst through the doors of the Seattle Jewish Federation, screaming anti-Semitic epithets. He was armed. His aim was to kill and maim Jews, and that’s exactly what he did. He is a self-confessed murderer who, at the time, stated that “I’m tired of getting pushed around, and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East.”
To Haq, one Jew was obviously like another—Israeli, American, what’s the difference? Kill them all.
The prosecutors have chosen not to seek the death penalty—a wise decision. Capital punishment in Seattle? Ludicrous. Instead they’re aiming for long-term incarceration, a shoo-in in a just society.
But Haq’s lawyers are attempting a canny defense. They’re claiming insanity: Mr. Haq was suffering from bipolar disorder and was simply off his meds. And the maneuver just might work. For Jewish leaders in Seattle have already put on blinders (The poor man, he had to be deranged. No Muslim would possibly want to murder Jews. In London, maybe. In New York, very likely. In Madrid, Bali, Iraq, could be. But in Seattle? Impossible.)
Indeed, for concentrated banality, it would be hard to beat the statement of Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee. He tells the New York Times that the trial is basically about “a man who is mentally incompetent at some level…. We’re all looking at it that way rather than in the context of when it first happened, when it was ‘Oh, my gosh, a Muslim man has just shot up the Jewish Federation because of events in the Middle East.’ We’ve come a long way.”
They’ve come a long way, all right. And all of it is downhill.
The process is sadly reminiscent of the old tale of a man, Sam, caught in a Minsk snowstorm. His friend Max begs him to stay rather than go home in the storm. Each time Sam attempts to leave; each time Max importunes him to sleep over.
At the end of the third day Max presents Sam with an enormous bill for food and lodging. “But you invited me to stay!” protests Sam. “This is unfair!”
“I’ll tell you what,” says Max. “We’ll let the rabbi decide.” They go to the religious leader, who hears the case and then tells Sam, “You must pay.”
Furious, Sam forks over the rubles. Then, as he gets on his droshky, Max suddenly returns the money. Sam sputters, “Why did you put me through all this if you were going to give it back?”
Max explains: “I just wanted to show you what a fool we have for a rabbi in Minsk.”
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