Hannah Arendt’ Concept of “the Banality of Evil”' Analytical Essay
In 1965, in Indonesia, Anwar Congo played a critical role in the mass murder of nearly half a million of his own people. The claims of a coup attempt by Communists released pent-up communal hatred; these flames of revulsion were fanned by the Indonesian Army, which quickly blamed the PKI (The Communist Party of Indonesia). Communists were purged from political, social, and military life, and the PKI itself was disbanded and banned. The massacres began in October 1965, in the weeks following the coup attempt, and reached their peak over the remainder of the year before subsiding in the early months of 1966. Despite the inherent evil of the acts, Congo’s intentions were banal. In Congo’s seemingly sadistic and depraved actions, his intent to merely do his job was disturbingly normal. Anwar Congo exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” by feeling no remorse for his actions and expressing a shallow cluelessness, he displays resolve to do his job, whatever it may be, without sadistic motives, similar to Adolf Eichmann in Arendt’s study.
The year following Indonesia’s 1965 coup saw the murder of more than a million so-called ‘communists,’ who were, in fact, merely enemies of the military; including ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and union members. One of the military’s main objectives in the killings was to destroy the anti-colonial labor movement that had existed up until 1965 and to lure foreign investors with the promise of cheap, docile workers and abundant natural resources. The unrest was rooted in the paranoia that the Communist Party of Indonesia, or the PKI, was stealing money from the rest of Indonesia’s population. Anwar Congo, head of a gang of killers called the Frog Squad, the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra, personally slaughtered approximately 1,000 citizens. He is the subject of The Act of Killing, a documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, that invites Congo and his friends to dramatize their crimes and to boast about their starring roles in a genocide. The documentary follows Congo and some of his fellow Frog Squad members as they reminisce on their times as “gangsters.” Throughout the film, some of Anwar’s friends talk about how the killings were wrong, while others worry about how the story will portray their public image. Ultimately, throughout most of the film, Congo acted as if he was careless or proud of his actions, further strengthening Arendt’s argument of the banality of evil.
Several people have compared Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Arendt argues that Eichmann was somehow not capable of thinking independently. It was thoughtlessness that drove him, as the evil was ignored so well that its perpetrator did not recognize the cruelty of his deed. This is exactly what Oppenheimer saw in Congo. For students of Arendt Congo, Oppenheimer’s film seems to invite comparison, not least at moments when its subjects, the perpetrators of genocide, discuss relationships between their pasts to official history and to international human rights law. But most of these commentators simply align Arendt’s Eichmann with the film’s central subjects, Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and Adi Zulkandry, and uncritically conclude that their murderous behavior and intolerable (lack of) defense are simply another example of the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann similarly to Anwar Congo – as a small-minded functionary, more concerned with the managerial methods of his job than the moral or existential whys. According to Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t a man interested in asking difficult questions, he just got on with the logistics of the job: managing timetables and calculating travel costs. Congo was the same exact way in the methodical killing of almost a million of his own people, even while personally killing more than a thousand himself.
Despite the fact that Congo’s stated intent during the violent times was ordinary, his words and actions today reveal a different story. Although Congo has expressed little to no remorse about his murderous actions, Congo has stated that he still has nightmares about what he did. He tries to forget with alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy. Congo has talked about ghosts of his victims that visit him in his nightmares. Congo often has nightmares about his past, which would suggest that Congo might actually indeed feel some remorse or regret about his actions. He can’t fully confront his past or decide if what he did was wrong because he’s part of a grand narrative that says he was supposed to kill for the good of the country, for its New Order. In the film “The Act of Killing,” after Congo plays a victim, he cannot continue. This is significant as it highlights the fact that Congo just might finally recognize the horror and evil behind his actions in the past. Congo’s self-medication and clear suffering after the fact show, despite his protestations, that he feels real remorse for his horrific actions.
Anwar Congo was one of the founders of the Pemuda Pancasila, which remains to this day a formidable right-wing paramilitary organization in Indonesia. Its members brag openly about extortion, killing, mass murder, and other war crimes. The killings are skipped over in most Indonesian history textbooks and have received little introspection by Indonesians, due to their suppression under the Suharto regime. The search for satisfactory explanations for the scale and frenzy of the violence has challenged scholars from all ideological perspectives. In Congo’s seemingly cruel and immoral actions, his intent to simply do his job and “be a gangster” was disturbingly normal. Anwar Congo exemplifies Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” by feeling little to no remorse at the time of the actions and expressing a shallow cluelessness, he only desired to do his job, whatever it may be, without sadistic motives, similar to Adolf Eichmann in Hannah Arendt’s study.
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