Why do people who are normally good commit acts of evil? A great many have been bedevilled by the question but the answer is as elusive as when it was first posed in many foundational stories within religious traditions and cultures that too have grappled with the question of violence.
Famed German philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, has arguably offered the most well know, if not the best, contemporary explanation for why people commit acts of evil with her inquiry into the question of violence through her assessment of fascism.
Arendt's work into the perennial question of why people who are otherwise good commit acts of great evil earned her global acclaim. Though she authored dozens of books and articles, the Holocaust survivor is perhaps more famed for a single perceptive line about evil than the many volumes she wrote understanding the nature of political violence: "The banality of evil".
Arendt coined the term in her report on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi's Final Solution. Arendt found Eichmann to be an ordinary, bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was "neither perverted nor sadistic", but "terrifyingly normal".
What Arendt captured, perhaps better than most, is that crime against humanity had become in some sense "banal" routinized. They were being implemented without moral revulsion, political indignation and nor did they face any form of resistance. The consequence was mass murder and genocide. Some have understood this to mean that within every human being and in every political community lurked the germs of Fascism that could gestate into a monster.
Listening to ex-soldiers from the Lebanese Civil War interviewed for the feature length documentary, "About a War", Arendt's depiction of "evil" as "banal" screams through. Viewers are confronted with questions about the nature of evil and political violence through the testimonies of people that fought each other in the brutal civil war. The journey of one particular ex-soldier who was a member of the Lebanese Phalanges is particularly striking in this regard.
The figure of the head of intelligence of the Lebanese Phalange is one of three characters in the documentary by two filmmakers, Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver. They set out to answer the questions: What compels someone to pick up weapons and fight? Can we both kill in civil conflict and be sorry? What happens when the war is over?
While these questions are intended to tie the film together, Rugo and Weaver produce a documentary that achieves more than that by increasing our understating of why good people commit acts of extreme violence.
The powerful testimony of the member of the Lebanese Phalange, Assad, traces his journey from a youth who joins the military to fight against Muslims and Palestinians who he was led to believe were "traitors" that were "really different socially and politically", to his realisation that he had become a "monster" having been complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacre where as many as 3,000 Palestinians were killed.
Assad testifies to his role with the Israeli army and the Lebanese army's coordination with the intelligence services of Israel to disrupt the Palestinian resistance by collecting data about strategic reserves such as fuel. As an intelligence officer he said he knew everything about the Palestinian camps including how much flour they had in reserve and how long they could maintain a siege without starving the Palestinians. His role, explained Assad was to apply enough pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his people so that they would leave Lebanon.
Some 250,000 people died and a further one million were displaced in a civil war that lasted 15 years. When the war started in 1975 it was a conflict between two parties: on one side was the right-wing Christian Phalange militias. They were inspired by the likes of Franco and Fascism in general, as one expert in the documentary explains, and they defended what they considered to be the rights of the Lebanese Christians. They were opposed to Lebanon's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the presence of the PLO in their country. The other side consisted of Palestinian groups, Lebanese communists and leftists and Muslim Sunni groups resisting the Israeli occupation.
The documentary succeeds in portraying the brutality of the Lebanese conflict without falling into the trap of many war documentaries that fetishize violence in a manner that is unnecessary in trying to create the impact filmmakers seek. Rugo and Weaver said that they wanted to explore how these men, as teenagers, were first mobilised and also how and why they picked up a weapon for the first time and then kept fighting for 15 years. The movie also explored the fate of the fighters once the fighting was over and their efforts to cope with the realisation of their actions and role as part of a system of violence.
Rugo and Weaver have produced a documentary that goes beyond their initial expectation. "About a War" speaks powerfully to a universal issue concerning cycles of violence while shedding further light into why good people commit acts of great evil.
"About a War" is now showing at the Curzon Soho movie theatre.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.