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Line of Duty and the Banality of Evil

Friday, May 07, 2021

By Thomas Thérèse Mannion, O.P | [Spoiler Alert] Line of Duty's revelation of the identity of H has remarkable similarities with Hannah Arendt's observation on the 'banality of evil', a revelation which demonstrates that "every single person, not just those we think of as criminal masterminds need the grace of our saviour and redeemer, Jesus Christ."

Spoiler Alert: The alleged identity of H will be revealed in this post.

Whilst many of us were slightly disappointed by the apparent outcome of of the Line of Duty finale there is something which is very true. Evil is less glamorous than we present it and everyone needs grace. Hannah Arendt, when writing about the trial of Nazi officer Eichmann did not highlight great masterminds and strategic planning, but the ordinariness of those who lacked good moral character.

Arendt wrote: ‘… when I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III "to prove a villain." Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted. In principle he knew quite well what it was all about, and in his final statement to the court he spoke of the "revaluation of values prescribed by the [Nazi] government." He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness - something by no means identical with stupidity - that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is "banal" and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace… That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together...’

What frustrated viewers on Sunday night was what Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. We expected to have a big reveal of someone high up in a position of authority, a meticulous and clever officer. Someone perhaps like the character Patricia Carmichael. Instead we had the bumbling, boring, seemingly incompetent Buckells. Similarly in Nazism, it was the ordinary everyday person who allowed the cogs to keep turning: the guards, the neighbourly informants, the youth group leaders, the accountants, the lawyers. I would suggest it is precisely the humdrum Buckells which is what makes evil both pathetic and insidious. This character was ordinary and everyday and committed great evils. Often in life is this not the case? Think of those little compromises we make, the stories we tell ourselves to rationalise or excuse our behaviour, the times when we have confronted someone about their wrong doing and instead of apologising they justify it. ‘I’m not being rude I’m just telling you the truth’, ‘If I didn’t do it someone else would’.

We have recently celebrated the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. Fr. Richard Finn asked whether those martyrs growing up in their communities would have any idea they would eventually be betrayed by their neighbours? This again brings home to us the truth of Arendt’s words: ‘the banality of evil’. It was the lack of courage of ordinary everyday people, the lack of thought of ordinary everyday people which enabled the tyrannical reforming machines of Nazism and the Henrician state to execute so many.

I am not so convinced Buckells is H, and I’m hoping for another season of Line of Duty, yet the character illustrates a good point: ordinary people with ordinary motives can do terrible things. This is just one reason why every single person, not just those we think of as criminal masterminds need the grace of our savour and redeemer, Jesus Christ.

Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse is a student brother in simple vows, born on the Wirral. He felt called to the priesthood at an early age. Before joining the Order, he was employed in the Archdiocese of Westminster as a Catechetical and Youth Coordinator. Whilst studying Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, he stumbled across the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist which lead him to discover the Friars of the English Province on YouTube. He entered the noviciate in 2016. He enjoys Ice Skating, History of the Papacy and the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. | thomas.mannion@english.op.org


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