Political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to explain the psychology of Nazis who killed Jews during the Holocaust. In the ensuing years the world has witnessed many other instances of political atrocities, including genocide. This lesson examines one such atrocity: the mass killings of communists and other political opponents, as well as civilians, in 1965-66 Indonesia. It introduces the events in Indonesia through an unprecedented film, The Act of Killing, in which leaders of the death squads recount their own stories. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to consider whether or not Arendt's concept still applies.
Video clips provided with this lesson are from the highly acclaimed and controversial Academy Award®-nominated film, The Act of Killing.
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One class period (45 minutes) split over two sessions, plus preparation (see "Pre-Requisites" below)
- Understand the meaning of Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil," well enough to apply it to a current situation
- Become familiar with the circumstances through which the current leadership in Indonesia came to power
- Write persuasive essays
- Use listening, observation, speaking (discussion) and reasoning skills
A Note to Teachers
The film clips show the leader of a death squad talking about his "work." The subject matter is not graphic, but it is powerful and disturbing. Be prepared for the possibility that the activity could upset some students and consider whether or not the activity is appropriate, especially for students who have themselves experienced violence or atrocities.
The main activity is designed as a follow-up to reading the work of Hannah Arendt and exploring the meaning of her famous phrase, "the banality of evil." There are several options for this, depending on the level of your students and the time available. For example,
- Assign all students to read Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in its entirety. To check for understanding, have them summarize in a single paragraph what Arendt meant by the phrase "the banality of evil." or
- Provide your own description of the context of Arendt's work and read together as a class one or more of the explanations of "the banality of evil" in the resources section of this plan. or
- Assign students to read a summary of Arendt's work in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Scroll down to section 6 titled "Eichmann and the 'Banality of Evil.'")
2. Introducing the Lesson
Do a check-in to be certain that students understand the meaning of "the banality of evil." Then tell them they are going to be applying the phrase to a historical event that occurred two decades after the end of World War II. Their assignment is to decide whether or not the phrase aptly describes the perpetrators in that event.
3. Introducing the Film
Tell students that they are going to watch clips from a controversial Academy Award-nominated film, The Act of Killing. The first clip explains the film's subject matter and its approach. Show Clip 1. Before moving on, be sure that students know some basics about Indonesia and about the current ties between the United States and Indonesia. If they need information and if time allows, you might want them to read the entry on Indonesia on the U.S. Department of State website or the entry in the CIA World Factbook.
4. Showing the Film
Tell students that the man featured in the film clips they are about to see is named Anwar Congo. Remind them that their assignment after viewing is to answer the following question: Does Anwar exemplify Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil" or not? Show Clip 2 and Clip 3, taking a few minutes after each for students to comment on what he or she noticed. For example, some might notice that Anwar's grandson is in the room during the second clip, while others might comment on Anwar's demeanor or what he chooses to discuss.
If time allows, you might ask advanced-level students the following: How does The Act of Killing build on Arendt's concept? Beyond lessons about the nature of humanity, how does the film deepen your understanding of the idea of the performance (i.e., re-enactment) of evil? The pleasures of evil? The trauma of evil? Do you think that acts considered evil that are left unpunished draw society into a kind of moral vacuum?
5. Applying the Concept/Assessment
As homework, assign students to write persuasive essays that answer the following question: Does Anwar Congo exemplify Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil" or not?
6. Discussion, Debate and Diolague
On the day you collect the essays, allow students to share what they wrote with one another (either in class or online in a class wiki) and comment on the arguments they made and the evidence they used to back up their opinions. Ask for their evaluation of which arguments were the strongest and why.
- Assume for the sake of argument that in 1965, the prospect of communists governing Indonesia posed a grave threat both to Indonesians and to the United States. Write a persuasive essay that answers the following question: Did the ends justify the means?
- Investigate other autocratic leaders and situations involving death squads, either in current events or in recent history (e.g., Charles Taylor, Augusto Pinochet, Boko Haram, the genocide in Rwanda). Discuss whether "the banality of evil" applies to those events. Examine the role of national truth and reconciliation committees and/or the International Court of Justice in exacting justice for those atrocities. Debate whether or not students think that the International Court of Justice ought to bring Indonesian leaders or men like Anwar to trial for crimes against humanity.
- Study U.S.-Indonesian relations further. Has (or should) the United States acknowledge(d) its role in the Indonesian mass killings? Make policy recommendations on what future relations should look like, including whether or not the United States should declassify relevant documents relating to the events of 1965. Consider other possible actions the U.S. government could take to help bring clarity and healing.
- View the full film and ask students to read director Joshua Oppenheimer's article inThe Guardian. The article discusses the present-day legacy of atrocity in Indonesia, impunity and the impact of the film. Invite students to compare and contrast The Act of Killing with films they have seen that depict other atrocities in history (e.g., Schindler's List, Night and Fog, Missing). How does The Act of Killing differ from these films in form, subject matter and impact?
The Banality of Evil
Banality of evil is a philosophical term meaning that evil occurs when ordinary individuals are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity.
The phrase, the banality of evil, is a difficult one because it seems to imply that evil itself is banal. What she meant was that this man [Eichmann] and many, many like him was banal. And banal meant for her--and she talked about this at length--banal meant thoughtless. It meant that the man showed no capacity to engage in any interior dialogue with himself about what he was doing. No capacity, as we would say, for reflection. No sense of self, no moral sense as she understood it.
I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer--at least, the very effective one now on trial--was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither monstrous nor demonic.
Source: Hannah Arendt quoted in an article in The New Yorker, which published the reporting in which she originally used the phrasewww.newyorker.com/books/double-take/eighty-five-from-the-archive-hannah-arendt
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.
Source: Hannah Arendt, the epilogue of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
Arendt reported on the disturbing fact that struck her--and many others, including the Israeli judges--that Eichmann was decidedly average. The evil of Eichmann's deeds was indisputable, and Arendt is fully convinced he should be hung for his crimes. Yet, notwithstanding what he had done, Eichmann's motivations seemed grounded in typical bourgeois drives. He was ambitious. He sought the recognition that came from success and the affirmation that flowed from belonging to a movement. He was, she concluded, not stupid, but thoughtless. And it was this "absence of thinking--which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think"--that Arendt came to see as the dangerous wellspring of evil in modern times.
Source: The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard Collegewww.bard.edu/hannaharendtcenter/about/
The Act of Killing
In addition to information about the film and filmmakers, the site includes historical background, production notes and selected reactions to the film.
POV: The Act of Killing
The site includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
BRITDOC Puma Impact Report: The Act of Killing
This is a detailed report on the outreach campaign and impact of the film in Indonesia and around the world.
The Guardian: "The Act of Killing Has Helped Indonesia Reassess its Past and Present"
This 2014 article, written by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, discusses the filmmaking process, the present-day legacy of atrocity in Indonesia and the impact of the film.
Library of Congress: The Hannah Arendt Papers
The original manuscript of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which first appeared in serial form in the magazine The New Yorker, can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.
Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto's Coup d'État in Indonesia by John Roosa
This book provides a detailed account of the genocide and the events leading up to it.
Tempo: "Requiem for a Massacre"
In 2012 the leading Indonesian news magazine Tempo published an unprecedented 75-page special on the 1965-66 killings, with testimonies from the perpetrators.