Manchester, monsters and the issue of evil

In a coincidentally-timed essay on Little Atoms this week, author James Hawes described the origins of German anti-Semitism and eventually Nazism in the anti-Western Prussian movements of the 19th century. 

Hawes pointed out that Prussian protestant zealots had hoped German unification would “lead them to a sort of proto-modernist Promised Land, purged of aristocratic privilege and regional Catholic loyalties alike.”

These cities on the hill are of course nothing new in Protestantism, and even in its precedents in Lollardism and other textual purists, who since the 14th century had regarded God (the God of their interpretation that is) had not approved as sinful and deviant.

Chief among the sinful and deviant for these 19th century Germans were those who at the same time were establishing a global liberalism: the Jews were involved obviously, but so too was Manchester, the centre of the modern manufacturing and trading world:

Hawes writes:

“They claimed there was a gigantic plan, driven by a Jewish, or Jew-ish, belief that culture counted for nothing and money for everything. The cunning, decadent, shopkeeperly British Empire – led by a Jew, Disraeli! – with its Kultur-less monoculture and unstoppable language, was the natural ally and enabler of the Jews in this plot to subjugate the globe through ‘Manchesterism’ (19th Century Germany’s exact equivalent of ‘Globalisation’).”

It’s grimly fitting then that a brutal attack by a modern religious zealot against a young, mixed, mostly female crowd should take place in Manchester, a city that grew wealthy on the radical ideas of manufacture and trade, creation and exchange, and has never shown particular interest in anyone’s notion of “purity”.

When we look for motivations for the sort of attack that took place in Manchester on Monday, we sometimes point to the possible “alienation” of those who carry them out. Other times, we like to imagine a madness has overtaken them – that to be so virulently horrified by a society that one would blow up its children, one must be in fact mentally ill. This is a dangerous train of thought, not least because it runs the risk of portraying mentally ill people as inherently violent. It also, unintentionally, summons the spectre of Soviet-style pyschiatric detention (making a comeback in Putin’s Russia) where anyone who is against the current system, for whatever reason, can simply be diagnosed as mad.

And then there is the question of whether the perpetrator can be described as “evil”, as some newspapers have chosen to describe Salman Abedi (often contrasting his evil end with the life of a “normal” cricket-loving lad. The political philosopher Norman Geras, a great adopted son of Manchester, was interested in the concept of evil. In 2004, he wrote fascinatingly for the blog Fistful of Euros on the accepted interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”, a description she applied to Adolf Eichmann:

“I shall express one or two reservations about Arendt’s thesis, nonetheless. First, unless my own reading in the literature of the Judeocide is atypical – and it isn’t – the ‘banality of evil’ thesis, like the companion modernity thesis (of Bauman et al.), seems to me to understate the amount of sheer sadism and cruelty there in fact was in the implementation of that horror. Correspondingly, the accent put by both of those theses on social and administrative structures in easing the path of human conscience towards barbarity gives insufficient weight to – where it does not altogether deny – those human-natural impulses of cruelty, the actual enjoyment of the misfortunes of others, regularly unleashed when the usual restraining circumstances allow them to be.”

Norm concluded:

“From an interpretative point of view I think we are bound to stick with Arendt’s assignment of full responsibility to Eichmann, since she is so clear and emphatic about it. On the other hand, I believe that all the talk, in the relevant literature, of the normality of the perpetrators carries a danger of encouraging us to think: well, because of these psychological pressures, these social mechanisms or administrative structures, those patterns of internal rationalization and so on, what the perpetrators did is ‘understandable’. But isn’t there a sense in which, as Primo Levi wrote, one must refuse to understand? Or one must say: each and all of the factors – social, psychological or whatever – that tempted or pressured you, they are understandable; still, you made a choice or choices which you should not have made and which others did not make – you crossed the line.

“Normality has an ethical meaning as well as social and psychological meanings. To participate in the mass murder and the torture of other human beings is, ethically, not normal but monstrous. What better definition of an abnormally cruel person than that he or she presided over or participated in abnormal cruelties?”

Norman Geras
Salman Abedi
Hannah Arendt
Adolf Eichmann