Following their reportedly “pleasurable” 40-minute private meeting at the Vatican, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani asked Pope Francis to “pray for him.” Pope Francis, in turn, thanked Rouhani for the visit and added that “he hopes for peace.” If this was not such an absurd exchange, so telling of the Machiavellian reality in which we live, so indicative of the emptiness of words, it would perhaps serve as the beginning of a good joke.
55 years have passed since Otto Adolph Eichmann stood trial on 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.
Found guilty on many of these charges, Eichmann was sentenced to death and was executed in 1962.
Last week, as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, records and documents previously unavailable to the public were released. Among them is a hand-written letter by Eichmann, one of the highest ranking officers in the genocidal Nazi regime, pleading for clemency from president Yitzhak Ben- Zvi, Israel’s second president. In his plea, the indicted Nazi war criminal explained that as “a bolt in a large machine,” he had only “followed orders,” reasoning that had he been significant, he would have surely received “benefits.” At no time did Eichmann acknowledge, take responsibility or apologize for what he had done. Eyewitness testimony indicates that even in his final moments Eichmann did not express remorse or regret for his part in the machine of annihilation of six million Jews.
It was in this context that Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In such a world, where words have no meaning, where no responsibility is taken, where no accountability is expected, President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” has indeed been effective.
In response to his repeated genocidal threats against Israel and the US, and the recurring incitement and proven financial support for the terrorizing and destruction of all that is free and democratic, he is welcomed with red carpets and open arms into the very bastion of values which he admittedly despises. Hosted by European countries on a “continental tour,” nude statues are covered to avoid offending the leader of a regime that hangs gays from cranes. Menus are altered in order to protect the sensibilities of the leader of a regime that recently legalized executions of children – boys from the age of 15, girls from the age of nine. Major corporations are rushing to be the first to profit from potential business opportunities with the ayatollahs’ regime of Iran which imprisons journalists indefinitely for expressing dissenting opinions. Democratic, Western countries are eager to normalize relations with the ayatollahs while the human rights of the people of Iran are trampled and their hope for change or assistance from the outside world is crushed.
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When words have no meaning, as an innocent 23-year-old devastatingly dies of wounds afflicted by a terrorist and as she is buried next to a remarkable mother of six who was brutally murdered on her front steps in front of three of her kids, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explains that it is “human nature to react to occupation.”
When words have no meaning, in response to the incitement resulting in daily acts of terrorism over the past four months, in which over 25 Israelis have been killed, Ban justifies it as due to “Palestinian frustration.”
When words have no meaning, such responses impair what should be the global fight against terrorism, which Israel as the proverbial canary in the mine shaft could be leading. When words have no meaning, such statements not only grant legitimacy to the murders, but de facto provide justification for future deadly attacks.
The very statements serve as advance exoneration from responsibility and exemption from accountability that enables the banality of evil to continue along the systemic and systematic paths of destruction, simply by “following orders.”
In a world that does not recognize repeat performances, in which words have no meaning, when the pope prays for President Rouhani as requested, what words will he use? Which God will he pray to? One of the Eichmann’s investigators, an Auschwitz survivor himself, recalls that in Eichmann’s final moments, the Protestant priest that stood by him urged him to pray to Jesus. Reportedly, Eichmann professed that “he had always been a believer in God, and still was at those final moments of his life.” Reflecting on the moment, the survivor with a number tattooed on his arm by the machine of evil could not help but wonder which god it was that Eichmann had believed in.
Stapled to Eichmann’s’ recently revealed letter is president Ben-Zvi’s handwritten reply, which reads, “As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women,” quoting the Prophet Samuel’s words to Agag, king of Amalek.
The Amalekites in this context represent the archetypal enemy and symbol of evil. In the face of such evil, banality was not to be accepted as justification. Responsibility was to be assumed. Accountability was to be had. Clemency was denied. Justice was to be administered. Not revenge, but justice that insists that human beings have responsibility for their actions and must be held to account.
Global, radical terrorism is blind.
It transcends physical and virtual boundaries of geography, religion, ethnicity, age or gender. If the free and democratic world is to overcome the challenges ahead, it too must transcend real or perceived differences and recognize that it is bound together by shared values. In this new world order, regimes threatening with genocide cannot be ignored or accepted, their leaders embraced and accommodated. Incitement to murder cannot be excused or disconnected from resulting acts of terrorism, their perpetrators understood or dismissed as “lone wolves.” In their responses of acceptance or excusing acts of terrorism, the institutions founded to ensure that “never again” is not just a slogan is undermining its very raison d’etre. In their apathy, ignorant analyses, or acceptance of blatant lies, world leaders are shirking responsibility and issuing clear messages that evil will not be held to account. Whether the manifestations are in Paris, Istanbul, California, Ottawa or Beit Horon, the very responses amount to the banality that enables evil, ultimately to the detriment of us all.
Prayer and hope, words and actions, are neither inherently good nor fundamentally evil. That is where the human being comes in, neither innately good nor genetically evil, exercising free thought and will responsibly or held to account by society.
It seems that is the call to action of our times. In an age of conventionally accepted, politically correct “moral ambiguity,” it is time to take a stand. Transcending politics, power, money and other possible agendas, it is crucial to identify, expose and reject evil. Transcending politics, power, money and other possible agendas, it is essential to identify, expose and support good. It is imperative that spiritual, political and educational leaders be well informed, formulate independent opinions even if unpopular, and take a stand, using their influence to enable authentic discussion and formulation of shared values. It is critical that they exercise their power, raise their voice, whisper a prayer, to demand that this global, radical, blind terrorism stop. Finally, exercising our democratic rights and responsibilities, it is up to each of us to ensure that they do so responsibly, or be held to account.
And let us say: Amen.
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