Suspected ISIS fighters are detained by Kurdish forces (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

April 13, 2021   5 mins

I used to think there was something demonically profound about Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis of Adolf Eichmann. He was “neither perverted nor sadistic
 but terribly and terrifyingly normal”; he epitomised the “banality of evil”. Eichmann, in effect, was a bespectacled gimp who you wouldn’t look twice at in the street.

Yet he had played an active role in an industrial-sized enterprise of human cruelty and malevolence. There was something deeply unnerving about this: the disproportion between the smallness of this man and the Himalayan magnitude of the Holocaust. It didn’t seem to add up.

As a criminologist, I have been trained to think that evil is a social category or label that dominant groups impose on less powerful “Others” – the marginalised. If there’s a “criminology of evil”, it’s a criminology of how modern states and their elaborate network of enforcers succeed in demonising people who can’t or won’t follow the rules of the system. According to this account, evil people aren’t really evil; they’re just the convenient victims of the “problematic” use of state power. They’re the symbolic scapegoats we invent to signal our virtue so that we can feel good and exorcise our demons.

Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann, while recognising his quotidian evil, readily fits in with this. Far from being a monster, Eichmann, in Arendt’s eyes, is a “thoughtless” Everyman. Even his motives, according to Arendt, were bland and boring, more to do with needy imperatives like pleasing superiors, career advancement and wanting to be liked.

But there’s another part of the story of human evil that Arendt and today’s criminologists cannot or do not want to confront. This is the part that has to do with the monstrousness of monstrous people. It’s the part that’s so squalid and viscerally disgusting that we can’t help but stare at it, shocked and dumbfounded by the scale of human wickedness grimly staring us in the face. It’s the stories that, as the renowned scholar William Ian Miller puts it, “sicken us in the telling, things for which there could be no plausible claim of right: rape, child abuse, torture, genocide, predatory murder and maiming”.

If there’s a genre to which these stories belong, it’s horror. And yet there’s no criminology of horror. Indeed, all of those sharp insights about “the banality of evil” quickly lose their edge the closer we venture toward that region of, to quote Miller again, “dark unbelievability”.

If, as I have, you’ve watched a lot of ISIS atrocity propaganda, or listened to the testimony of those who narrowly missed appearing in it, you’ll know all about dark unbelievability. It’s the sheer insanity of filming a toddler shoot a defenceless man, of filming a group of hostages being decapitated, of filming a man burned alive in a cage. It’s the sheer depravity of inventing ever more creative ways to torture and kill people because you think your fan-base will love it and your enemies hate it.

Granted, there was a method to ISIS’s madness. The group murdered people on camera — 2,375 in all, between January 2015 and June 2020 — because it wanted to terrify its enemies and inflame its supporters. And, like any terrorist group, it also wanted maximum exposure and publicity. But there was also an undeniably expressive quality to ISIS’s violence which can’t simply be reduced to cold means-ends logic. ISIS murdered not just with savage efficiency, but with hot exuberance and glee.

For a recent lecture on Trinidadian ISIS militants, I pulled out a particularly gruesome video that I planned to show. Uploaded to the internet in the summer of 2014, by which point ISIS had captured Mosul in Iraq and declared the formation of the caliphate, it shows a jihadi in military fatigues holding up a severed head.

“Hello, my name is John,” he says in a mock English accent, performing the role of ventriloquist. This is followed by howls of laughter, from both the militant and the person filming. “See, he doesn’t smile today,” the militant adds. “Right now John look like he died of natural causes,” a voice with a Trinidadian accent says off-camera. More riotous laughter.

These men are clearly enjoying themselves, which surely raises the spectre of a kind of evil that is anything but banal. Or does it?

A sanitised, sociological reading of the video would conclude that the laughter is an expression not of sadistic delight but of nervous energy; the men are laughing because they’re secretly horrified. They’re desensitised to killing and have been brutalised by war. It’s a way for these men to bond, and if they’re violent and thuggish it’s because they’re following the script of toxic masculinity. Indeed, the whole spectacle before us is determined by the situation, and not the predispositions, choices, desires or quirks of the men themselves. As the social psychologist Albert Bandura puts it: “Conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people… produce heinous deeds. Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the men in the video are “decent, ordinary people”; though I suspect that cutting a man’s head off and then laughing about it on camera is reason to doubt such a proposition. Instead, let’s probe the sly determinism inscribed in that  causal reference — “led” — in the above quotation from Bandura. Who or what led ISIS western militants to Syria? And who or what led them to cut off heads and laugh about it?

The typical sociological account of western ISIS militants would have it that everything but the agency of the militants themselves led them to go to Syria. Western imperialism led them. Slick ISIS videos led them. Their bruising experiences with the British security state led them. The Iraq war led them. Islamophobia led them. The caliphate-fantasy led them. Shadowy recruiters led them. Insecurity, identity-confusion, trauma, boredom — all of that somehow led them. And, then, once they got to Syria and Iraq, peer pressure, PTSD, fear, the need to belong — all of that led them to enslave people and commit terrible atrocities.

But none of this explains anything. It doesn’t explain why the so-called “Beatles” — the British ISIS beheading outfit — spent a lot of time taunting and degrading their victims prior to killing them. It doesn’t explain the insanity of the ISIS videos. It doesn’t explain the laughter of those Trinidadian ISIS militants. It doesn’t explain all the “useless violence”— as Primo Levi called it — that ISIS committed both on and off camera; the sort of violence that, as Levi explained, has no purpose other than creating pain.

More than twenty years ago, the political theorist C. Fred Alford brilliantly dissected the famous Stanley Milgram experiments that were carried out at Yale University in the 1960s. The subjects in the experiments, called “teachers”, think that they’re delivering shocks to a “learner”, who is actually in on the experiment with Milgram. The learner is a middle-aged man with a heart condition — or so Milgram informs the teacher. The teacher’s task is clear: he must flick a switch on the generator and deliver an electric shock to the learner when he fails to memorise word pairs. The shocks begin at 15 volts and go up to 450.

Alford concedes that the teachers do not appear to like their job: “They ask the experimenter not to go on, they talk about how worried they are about the learner. They smoke too much and sweat furiously
they complain, they hesitate
” Yet most deliver the electric shocks. “All they have to do
 is just say no, and mean it. Less than half do,” Alford writes.

Milgram interpreted this finding as evidence of “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority”. But Alford doesn’t buy it, and is struck by a little discussed detail that recurred throughout the experiments: namely, the grotesque laughter, “the giggling fits at the shock generator”.

“What if these men are giggling in embarrassed pleasure at being given permission to inflict great pain and suffering on an innocent and vulnerable man?” Alford asks. “What if what the teachers really want, what they long for, is permission to hurt someone?” Milgram rejected this conclusion outright: the teachers in the experiment are slavish, not sadistic. But he presented no evidence for this view.

Whether Alford is right about the teachers’s laughter remains to be seen, but his broader psychoanalytic perspective, which recognises the agency of people who do evil and the pleasures they take from controlling others through violence, captures something Arendt missed in her account of evil as “banal”.

Extensive footage from the Milgram experiments can be viewed on YouTube and you can judge for yourself whether or not Alford was onto something. Or there are those dark recesses of the internet, stuffed with videos of horrors inflicted by people who, pace Arendt, are terrifyingly terrible: ISIS butchers, chainsaw-wielding Mexican cartel murderers, serial killers armed with screwdrivers and many more grotesque figures.

And therein lies the problem with Arendt’s account of Eichmann: she was so bewitched by the smallness of the man that, to this day, it dulls us to all the thoughtful malevolence that surrounds us, should we dare to look at it and see it for what it really is.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.