The Eichmann Defense: Who to Blame for the State’s Killing

Does the famous Eichmann Defense of “just following orders” excuse anyone from blame for modern murders by the government?

Ryan Lau | United States

Anarchists desire a world without a government; such a notion is a requirement of the label. In many cases, they tout vehement dislike for the government. In fact, many people voice, at the minimum, that they do not trust the government. A 2018 poll showed that only about one-third of people said they could trust the government to do the right thing. But what does this mean? For many, the issue is more nuanced than it seems.

To make an accurate judgment of an organization, it is important to have a very distinct and specific definition of terms. We all know what the government is: a coercive, compulsory group that has political, social, and economic control over an area (in our case, U.S. territory, of course). I find that few people will dispute this definition. However, when speaking of who in the government to trust and distrust, like and dislike, the lines become more blurry.

Who’s to Blame?

A question that many anarchists, libertarians, and other anti-State advocates often fail to answer is exactly who to blame for the government’s wrongful actions. When the question is answered, it sometimes comes down to something as simple as those in charge or those who comply. Looking more closely, though, I find that these answers are quite unsatisfactory.

In certain instances, some may claim that the people are to blame. As voters, they choose to show up at the polls and elect someone that will use violence over others. By choosing a president, they choose someone that is likely, in recent history at least, to engage in acts of war. Thus, they are accepting and endorsing the use of force, especially if the candidate was open about his desire to engage in war during the campaign. But, they are not alone in blame. Such a suggestion would take responsibility away from the person actually carrying out the supposed will of the people.

The most simple answer to the question is that the president is to blame. After all, the citizens have very little influence in the direction of policy, and a singular vote is ineffective. The president, whether it is Trump, Obama, or anyone else, has immense power. This includes calling for wars, declaring martial law, and many more. Without a doubt, the president is capable of personally authorizing, if not carrying out, many evil acts. Can he, however, do any of them alone?

War and Pleas

As an example, let’s look at a time of war. Though the president pulls the strings, he does not go onto the battlefield: his life, in the eyes of the country and the military, is far too valuable. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even directly oversee many operations. In most cases, the generals fill these roles. Are they, then, to blame? After all, they carried out the actions of a man who, without any recognition, would have far less power. They, in a more direct fashion, are responsible for directly declaring the initiation of force. But once more, are they not similarly just giving orders?

The soldiers, as opposed to the generals, are on the receiving end of orders. When a general barks a command to kill an “enemy”, it is the soldiers’ jobs to do so. Without a doubt, they, rather than the generals, are the ones that are actually committing the acts of murder. Yet, the generals are telling them to do so, because the president told them they were going to war after the people voted in the president. The soldiers can make pleas for change, but superiors are unlikely to listen.

The Eichmann Defense

In response to this, many will suggest that the troops and even generals are just following orders. This famous defense first became popular, however, in the Nuremberg trials following the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann, a key organizer of the Holocaust, famously denied any moral responsibility due to the fact that he simply followed orders and was playing into the system. This lack of thought is no substitute for a moral compass. Responsible for the arrangement of countless murders, Eichmann was anything but innocent.

The same theory, then, applies in today’s climate. If we can justifiably call Eichmann guilty, we must maintain that following the rules of a system because they are the rules of the system is not a fair moral defense. Therefore, the actions of the State, when they lead to murder, are always wrong. This eliminates some of the blame-shifting, back and forth, replacing it with more universal blame. Anyone who partakes in any action, however small, that directly leads to a killing, shares some of the responsibility for it.

The killer, the orderer, the authorizer, and the voter alike all play key roles in the deaths of foreigners. If any of the four dissented, then the action simply could not take place. The trouble, though, is that besides the president, each of these people is a small part of a collective. The voter is easier to convince than the president not to perform his act. Yet, there are millions of voters to vote anyway. The soldiers may be slightly more difficult to sway, but there are still many more of them who will act in one’s refusal to. The generals and president, of course, are far less likely to cease their actions. But when they do, there are fewer people to take their places.

Ultimately, it appears that only those who are not, in any direct way, participating in the process can entirely escape the blame. Though they may indirectly cause harm through inaction, this is critically different than direct harm through action.

Direct and Positive Harm

For example, imagine a drowning man in a lake. If another man knocks him unconscious, he is to blame for initiating an action that worsens his position. On the other hand, if a third man does not swim out to save him, he is not causing harm; instead, he is withholding benefit. Though the third man, if he is a strong swimmer, may not be making a good decision, we don’t know if that is the case. Inaction at least gives a chance for the action to be moral; definite immorality does not do so.

Looking back at the president, or I suppose the generals and troops and voters too, what gives them the legitimacy to do so? The simple answer is the Constitution, but I am not referring to mere legal right. The Constitution, like any other document, can have its flaws. Thus, it falls under the same category as the Eichmann defense. Action in favor of supporting the Constitution because it happens to be the law is not necessarily good. It isn’t necessarily bad, either, but cannot alone be a moral defense. The words of the Constitution must also have merit in order to be defensible.

So, if not the Constitution, why do people positively create these acts of violence? Simply put, there is a chain that is incredibly difficult to break. The Eichmann defense is wrong, but that doesn’t mean people don’t use it. If they didn’t, then there would be no word for it, no deference to superior authority on the mere grounds that they are a superior authority.

A Larger Pool

It appears, then, that the scope of those who hold positive blame for the state’s actions is far larger than previously imagined. It includes, rather than one simple category, everyone who has played a direct role in the use of force. This includes all voters, politicians, government workers, soldiers, and leaders. This does not, however, mean that these people are in some way bad.

In fact, Eichmann is a famous example of this very phenomenon. German philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed the Eichmann trial and stated that his problem was not that he was evil himself. Instead, he merely allowed his moral thought to slip away and embraced the status quo. In a lecture, she actually suggested that Eichmann was equally accepting of his death sentence as he was of his actions of mass murder. The only major thing the two had in common, besides that they affected Eichmann, was that they were both the current law of the land.

On a much lesser degree, the same thing applies to many soldiers who believe that they are doing well. They are not evil, necessarily. Instead, they are acting without thinking. While the actions are certainly evil, in many cases, the individuals behind them may simply be unthinking, and there is a clear distinction between those who knowingly do evil and those who simply do not think about the morals of their acts at all.

Opposing Evil with Knowledge

Combating the spread of evil, thus, requires combating this notion of the Eichmann defense. A weak response of “just doing my job” does not excuse murder or any other immoral act. Yet, it also does not make the actor evil. Recognizing this, it is important to instill within everyone a value of truly thinking, rather than accepting the status quo. Perhaps one of the greatest dangers that mankind faces is the blending of questions of “what is” and “what should be”. The former and the latter may be equivalent but are not always. If such was true, the world would be a perfect place, and it certainly is far from it.

Sound easier said than done? It certainly is. There are many aspects of society that are deeply ingrained into each of our brains, and that isn’t always a bad thing. Simple social cues, for example, are essential for any of us to flourish in our relations with others. But we must always be on the lookout for those aspects which cause direct and positive harm to others; they may be far more prevalent than many of us imagine.

From war to taxation to a simple lever pulled in November, such harms are everywhere. It is our jobs, as knowledgeable citizens, to inform others of this whenever possible. Though far from perfect, perhaps increased thinking and moral consideration can at least reduce one element of evil in the world.

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