Does Australia's ‘war criminal’ testify to the banality of evil?

While doubts are now being levelled at recent claims made by a Burmese man that he executed 24 people whilst working as an undercover agent in Burma, his story nevertheless raises an interesting issue: anyone who has studied institutionalised abuse and the corruption of power in dictatorial states must have asked themselves whether, had they been born into such a society, they would end up on the ‘right’ side of the moral spectrum. While the hope is certainly there, a realist would answer that no guarantee can be given – our environment heavily influences our development as humans, and when that environment is debased, our perceptions of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ are distorted, even reversed, creating the potential for inhumane acts to be normalised.

It’s a question that currently has pertinence on several fronts in Southeast Asia, as senior cadres of the Khmer Rouge go on trial in Cambodia accused of war crimes, and activists mull over the potential targets of a UN Commission of Inquiry into Burma. Prosecutors in trials where abuses are sanctioned by the state, which, illegitimately or not, assumes the mantle of representatives of that society, are forced to factor in the creation of a ‘normalised evil’ when assessing the due responsibility of an actor in the crimes he or she commits.

Htoo Htoo Han at the weekend told reporters in Australia, where he now lives, that he has the blood of hundreds of Burmese on his hands. His claims will be investigated by police, but have been questioned by acquaintances. He says he is a war criminal, and if he is eventually tried, prosecutors will consider the conditions surrounding his alleged crimes in an environment where, as German political theorist Hannah Arendt coined in her 1963 book, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, the “banality of evil” must be tested.

Arendt argues that certain people, such as Nazi death camp guards, who enact unspeakable evils may well not carry the crazed mindset of their ringmasters, but instead are pawns of a state that has normalised the abnormal – in the twisted world of the Third Reich, she proffered, they become victims of manipulation. (This of course doesn’t account for the millions who do not join the ranks, and who accept their own death as an alternative to the prospect of killing others.)

Another text by Lisa Peattie in 1984, entitled ‘Normalizing the unthinkable’, carries a similar sentiment: it argues that everyone, even the inmates of Auschwitz who are themselves victims of a heinous crime, can, through the careful division of labour often used to mask the purpose of activities, play a tangible role in the brutal demise of others. “Prison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed.”

If a blanket ruling was introduced to indict everyone who has at least contributed to war crimes, then the prisoners who survived Auschwitz would be in the dock. But of course this is absurd, both because ‘complicity’ and ‘responsibility’ are very different things, and because it is accepted that human beings in degraded environments sometimes have little control, either physically (in the case of Auschwitz inmates), and indeed mentally, over their actions. But it at least acts as a reference point for one extreme end of the gamut of ‘responsibility’, which changes vastly as we move along it – Auschwitz prisoners were ordered on threat of death to “wire the fences”; further along the scale, murder is enacted through a thick web of roles, creating a distance from the results that, as US political scientist Edward Herman notes, “helps render responsibility hazy”; towards the other end, however, are those henchmen of Pol Pot’s now on trial who may have acted with a degree of comparative independence and assertiveness.

What category Htoo Htoo Han falls into, providing his claims are true, may begin to come clear as his story unfolds, although he has been frank about which end of the spectrum he operated from. War crimes’ trials however tend to target to chief architects of abuses, in part in an acknowledgement that responsibility thins as it passes down the chain of command. While few would argue that Htoo Htoo Han, should his claims be validated, must be tried, and that the full weight of his actions brought to bear upon him, we would do well to listen carefully to stories like his with a degree of openness, empathy and realism: too often the perpetrator is branded an animal and silenced, meaning that our ignorance of how power in its most debased form can permeate the psyche of a society and infect every inhabitant is maintained.

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