On May 11, 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and smuggled him into Israel. Eichmann stood trial as a war criminal responsible for deporting Jews to death and concentration camps in Nazi Germany in the 1940’s. He was found guilty after a four-month trial and hanged.
Hundreds of witnesses were brought to testify against him. One day a witness came into the trial chambers and when he looked at Eichmann locked up behind a bulletproof glass chamber, he suddenly started shaking, screaming and collapsed. When he was finally revived he was asked why he had reacted that way. He said “the first time I saw Eichmann in the camps, in his black uniform and shining boots, he was God.
“He had the power of life and death over hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He was God. He was the embodiment of evil staring at us. Now I see that small man, wearing a cheap suit and glasses and he looks so ordinary and human. He is like me and you.”
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Hannah Arendt, a journalist who became a great philosopher described Eichmann as the “banality of evil”, meaning that evil can be so ordinary, so normal. That you and I, today ordinary people, could in certain circumstances become evil too. Can you see yourself murdering your neighbours because they are from the wrong tribe? Really?
Unfortunately you could. We all carry some evil in us. Last week, Felicien Kabuga was arrested in Paris. He was one of the masterminds of the 1994 killings in Rwanda. His French neighbours thought he was a shy African old man living next door. Yet this same man organised the importation and distribution of machetes (pangas) and encouraged some people through his radio stations to go and kill – and many went out and willingly and enthusiastically chopped up their neighbours.
Unfortunately, ordinary men like you and I did that in Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, Serbia, Bosnia and lest we forget, right here at home in the Rift Valley, Nairobi, Mombasa and various parts of Kenya. Yes, we did. This week we have seen America in flames. A white policeman in Minneapolis kills a black man in broad daylight while someone is filming. This was the fifth killing in the last year. How do you sit on someone’s neck as he screams “I can’t breathe.” This is the ugly face of white racism.
But how do you explain when black Kenyan police officers kill black citizens? Is it racism at play again or is this simply the banality of evil caused by wearing a uniform and carrying a gun? What makes the man, who has a wife at home and children that he worries about, and has the same problems that you and I have, go out and kill or beat someone to the point of maiming them in the name of the law – just because he can?
It is the environment and circumstances that change man. Under the right circumstances you and I, given a gun and bullets (or bow and arrows) and the feeling that we can get away with it, would do the unspeakable and even kill fellow human beings.
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The election of Donald Trump has increased racial tensions in the United States. In November 1970, James Baldwin, the famous African American writer wrote an “Open Letter To My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” and warned that: “If the American people are unable to contend with their elected leaders for the redemption of their own honour and the lives of their own children, we, the blacks, the most rejected of the Western children, can expect very little help at their hands: which, after all, is nothing new.
What the Americans do not realise is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil, is not a racial war but a civil war.” Sadly, fifty years later these words still ring true. That’s how little progress has been made. More important, that’s how little people have changed in fifty years.
Kenyans be warned. Politics brings out the worst in us. Political temperatures are rising again. We must never allow our politicians to take us to the point where we start fighting again. We must realise that political passions if left unchecked can be very, very dangerous and destructive.
Then it’s only a matter of time before the machetes come out. We must learn to agree to disagree sometimes, to support different people and political parties – and recognise that when the season of political madness is over, that we all have to live with each other again. When the politicians have all gone home as winners or losers, we still have to face our neighbours and our common problems together. Let’s keep the peace.
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Mr Shahbal is chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]