By far the most terrifying thing about encountering evil in real life is how innocuous it appears. Hannah Arendt may have gone a bit too far in her theory of the banality of evil, but there is no doubt that the phenomenon is quite real, and all the more terrifying for it. Put simply, once one has looked evil in the eye once or twice, the most striking aspect of it is how ordinary it is. Monsters quite rarely appear to be so, and monstrous things often seem terrifyingly meaningless and empty when witnessed first hand. Perhaps this is simply a defense mechanism, a way for our perceptions to minimize the potential emotional damage of horror, but whatever its origins, it remains a chilling and undeniable paradox.
This video of an appearance by conservative activist and ex-leftist David Horowitz at USC San Diego brought this home to me, thankfully at second hand. Challenged by a member of the Muslim Students Association, the following exchange ensues
Horowitz: Okay, I’ll put it to you this way. I am a Jew. The head of Hizbollah has said that he hopes that we will gather in Israel so he doesn’t have to hunt us down globally. For or against it?
MSA member: For it.
Perhaps others will see it differently, but for me there is a quiet terror in watching this moment. Perhaps it is the calm politeness, the terrible ordinariness, with which the student expresses her sentiments; as though she were voting “aye” on a question of raising municipal property taxes or repealing a law requiring dog leashes. Perhaps it is the despairing knowledge that the apologetics and excuses will be short in coming, and hundreds of the credentialed, intelligent, and liberal will shortly be explaining to us that she didn’t actually mean what she said or, if she did, it is nonetheless an understandable and relatively innocuous thing to say. Perhaps it is the realization that saying this sort of thing about essentially any other group of people would arouse a storm of institutional protest and censure which most certainly will not ensue in this case. And, of course, there is the undeniable fact that many will shortly be blaming Horowitz for the whole thing.