debbie millman

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Commentary: The Banality of Evil

This past Monday, as I usually do at 10pm, I was watching Aaron Brown on CNN. There was massive coverage of the serial killer BTK, which is of course, the acronym for Bind Torture Kill. BTK’s “real name” is Denis Rader and the coverage on NewsNight was nothing short of gruesome, as Mr. Rader recounted the first of his nine killings to Judge Greg Waller, who accepted Rader's plea in Sedgwick County District Court. At Waller's urging, Rader provided detailed accounts of each killing, which he dispassionately described as "projects" or "hits." At one point, as he explained the serial killer's modus operandi, Rader said, "they go through what they call different phases. In the trolling stage, basically, you're looking for a victim at that time. You can be trolling for months or years, but once you lock in on a certain person, you become a stalker. There might be several of them, but you really hone in on one person. They basically become the...victim. Or, at least that's what you want it to be."

Rader pleaded guilty and he also recanted his right to a jury trial. He seemed perfectly calm and quite at peace with his decisions, and if viewers didn’t know better, one could almost consider that he was recalling the play by play of a horror movie rather than the details of nine serial killings. BTK’s lack of remorse as he confessed the last moments of his “projects” caused even the usually taciturn Aaron Brown to shudder. I was riveted, I felt nauseous and I was all but paralyzed listening to this man who seemed to have, as Aaron Brown aptly put it, “no soul.” When NewsNight went to a commercial break, Mr. Brown asked his viewers to return to continue to witness what he referred to as the “banality of evil.” This is when my jaw dropped.

According to, banal means “drearily commonplace and predictible.” A common definiton of evil is “causing ruin, injury, pain, morally bad or wrong. It seems to me that when you join these two words—to suggest somehow that evil can now be considered trite is when the world as we HOPE to know it undergoes a mutation of sorts. I can think of no better response to this than that of my dear comrade Jaymes Kint, who when I emailed my consternation to him Monday night, he responded as follows:

The banality of evil. I think that statement right there indicates how society has become completely numb to the effects of evil. Nothing surprises us anymore. It fits right in there with the steady decline of civilization. Oh another kidnapping, another car bomb, another missing kid, another serial killer, another dead girl in Aruba. Its like we just shake our heads and go "Damn what did Tom Cruise do today????"

He goes on to say that Ihe really enjoys the dry sarcastic whit of Henry Rollins from Black Flag. He has his own show on IFC called Henry's Film Corner. Jaymes thinks he put it best most recently when he said "Do you remember a while ago when pop culture events used to be small blips on the news screen to momentarily divert us from the day to day boring, tedious, and horrible events of Planet Earth? And now the boring, horrible, nasty events of Planet Earth are a mere distraction from Pop Culture news! You know as well as I do that we live in a dangerous time where the war in Iraq, a nuclear threat in North Korea, and a president who is shoving arch conservatives into the American court system, and we don't hear anything about them. Why? Because Jennifer Lopez has a new line of sunglasses. Because Martha Stewart just got out of prison and we're wondering what she's going to plant this spring! Could it be that current events are so horrible and dreary and grinding that we need massive relief where we take the eye of the ball? How many dead Americans do we need to come back to this country from Iraq and Afghanistan for us to take our minds off American Idol, Survivor, and American Bachelor? I want to watch the news and I want to find out what's going on in the real world, not what's going on in the world of Paris Hilton, who makes interesting porn films, but past that I really don't care what waify overpaid trust fund kids have to do with anything. There is a time and place for Pop Culture news. The problem I have is the priority that all this stuff gets next to real weighty world events. And I know I sound like I'm overreaching, politically correct, and tree hugging, when actually I'm a pissed off American who's tired of people sleeping on the job when they should be really concerned about what's going on in the wonderful country they live in."

Hence, the banality of evil.


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11/19/2005 03:47:00 PM  

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