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Mass Atrocity, Ordinary Evil, and Hannah Arendt

Mass Atrocity, Ordinary Evil, and Hannah Arendt: Criminal Consciousness in Argentina`s Dirty War

Mark J. Osiel
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Mass Atrocity, Ordinary Evil, and Hannah Arendt
    Book Description:

    Is it possible that the soldiers of mass atrocities-Adolph Eichmann in Nazi Germany and Alfredo Astiz in Argentina's Dirty War, for example-act under conditions that prevent them from recognizing their crimes? In the aftermath of catastrophic, state-sponsored mass murder, how are criminal courts to respond to those who either gave or carried out the military orders that seem unequivocally criminal?This important book addresses Hannah Arendt's controversial argument that perpetrators of mass crimes are completely unaware of their wrongdoing, and therefore existing criminal laws do not adequately address these defendants. Mark Osiel applies Arendt's ideas about the kind of people who implement bureaucratized large-scale atrocities to Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s, and he also delves into the social conditions that could elicit such reprehensible conduct. He focuses on Argentine navy captain Astiz, who led one of the most notorious abduction squads, to discover how he and other junior officers could justify the murders of more than ten thousand suspected "subversives."Osiel concludes that legal stipulations labeling certain deeds as manifestly illegal are indefensible. He calls for a significant change in the laws of war to preserve both justice and the possibility of dialogue between factions in such sharply divided societies as Argentina. Osiel's proposals have profound implications for future prosecutions of Pinochet's lieutenants, Milosevic's henchmen, the willing executioners of Rwanda and East Timor, and other perpetrators of state-endorsed murder and torture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16051-2
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Large-scale atrocity is one of the defining events of our time. It has become an event of disconcerting frequency. This book is part of a trilogy aimed at assessing the law’s response to such episodes and at evaluating its practical and intellectual resources for coping with the uniquely difficult problems these events pose for prosecutors, courts, and societies at large.¹

    For all its sordid singularity, the Argentine “Dirty War”—in which military officers killed between 11,000 and 15,000 people—can be viewed as a political conflagration of a more general sort. This is the experience of administrative massacre,² the centrally...

  5. Chapter 1 ʺDirty Warʺ and Democratic Response
    (pp. 11-24)

    No single general or small coterie of top officers monopolized power during Argentine military rule from 1976 until 1983. During this time Argentina resembled several contemporaneous regimes in Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay. By contrast to the “personalist” dictatorships that once dominated the region, the officer corps in these societies ruled “as an institution.”¹ Decisions on all important matters required the consensus of major factions within the corps.

    At the top of the military’s agenda was the perceived imperative of ridding the population of all elements incompatible with its social vision. Traditional Catholicism, fierce nationalism, and intense xenophobia merged into the...

  6. Chapter 2 Ordinary Atrocity: The Mind of Administrative Massacre
    (pp. 25-61)

    Criminal law has yet to confront, much less adequately answer, the most serious moral and theoretical challenge yet posed to prosecution for large-scale, state-sponsored brutality. This challenge was raised by Hannah Arendt in her study of the prosecution of Adolph Eichmann.

    Her book has had enormous impact on general understanding of mass atrocity.¹ Most important, the doubts she raised about the defensibility of prosecuting the lower-and middle-echelon perpetrators of mass atrocity continue to haunt contemporary international developments in this area, clouding the legitimacy of such achievements. Her critique of the Eichmann court’s judgment is recurrently raised today by those who...

  7. Chapter 3 ʺExtraordinaryʺ Atrocities
    (pp. 62-103)

    In the aftermath of the Cold War, it is tempting to dismiss the idea of totalitarianism as anachronistic, clearly misguided—at least in retrospect, from the perspective of what we know today. Though initially offered only for heuristic purposes, it came to impede Western perception of the Soviet Bloc’s grave internal weaknesses and the consequent possibility of its quick and tranquil demise.¹ It was invoked to defend U.S. support for repressive states that could be characterized as “merely authoritarian.” Liberals and leftists often view the theory of totalitarianism as a discursive expression—at the level of power/knowledge—of Western interests...

  8. Chapter 4 Religious Reassurance
    (pp. 104-148)

    Soldiers like Astiz might have mistaken their acts as morally and legally permissible, due to the spiritual encouragement offered by the Roman Catholic Church, which taught that this was a “just war.”¹ The Church,² enjoying independent moral authority among the public, offered largely unqualified support for an official policy of mass murder, dispelling the doubts of ambivalent participants. This possibility would have struck Arendt as highly implausible—not only for the reasons it strikesanyonethis way. Specifically, she viewed the bureaucratic mass murderer as lacking the moral sensibility to which traditional religions appeal and the social attachments (i.e., beyond...

  9. 5 Conclusions
    (pp. 149-164)

    Hannah Arendt directed her argument concerning the “banality of evil” primarily at the criminal law, at its conclusive presumption about what motivates people to commit extreme violence. Her thesis has been extraordinarily influential¹—everywhere, that is, except within the professional world at which it was aimed. The present study has sought to clarify and reformulate that thesis in a way that lawyers and legal theorists must take seriously. The other two books in this trilogy offer an answer to her challenge.

    Arendt sought to explain how so many seemingly ordinary people could be recruited to the task of administrative mass...

  10. Appendix: Human Rights Reporting as a Literary Genre
    (pp. 165-168)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 169-234)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-250)
  13. Index
    (pp. 251-257)