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Hawaii Law in Film Festival Asks Hard Questions About Evil

Must one mean evil to do evil? Or can evil exist by merely looking the other way?
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Must one mean evil to do evil? Or can evil exist by merely looking the other way?

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend the opening night of the second annual "Let's Film all the Lawyers" Law in Film movie festival, put on by the law firm Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert and chaired by Robert Thomas. Last year they showed every lawyer's favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird; this year the focus is on movies number two and three, 12 Angry Men, which should be required viewing in every junior high across the nation, and My Cousin Vinny, which is required watching on TBS, the Superstation.

But the opening night film was different, Hannah Arendt, is the fictionalized true story of one of philosophy's foremost thinkers on evil. One of the most famous trials of all time serves as the centerpiece and the entire movie is about jurisdiction and jurisprudence. Hannah is a Jewish German who spent time in the camps in France ("France had camps? France was on your side!" One of the uninformed students ask in the movie.) Ms. Arendt wrote "the Origins of Totalitarianism" and was asked by the New Yorker to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

I was familiar with Eichmann but the attorney friend I went with was not. Kidnapped in the middle of the night from S. America (think Dog the Bounty Hunter and Andrew Luster in Mexico), Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem for "Crimes against Humanity." He stood trial in a country he had never been to, for charges that were brand new, under a procedure that was created just for him. Hannah wrestled with these questions of jurisdiction. Think of the spirit behind the United States' Constitutional ban against ex post facto laws. Hannah's objection to the trial started there.

Eichmann's job in the Third Reich (according to the movie, real life is always more complicated) was simply to make the trains run on time. That fact that the trains were packed to overflowing with human beings being sent to their death was no matter to him, "cargo" was not his job. His job was to handle the logistics of the move. What happened with the cargo before, during, and after the transportation was not his kuleana.

But should it have been? This question is what Hannah wrestled with in the movie. How could this ordinary, unexceptionable man be responsible for the murder of so many millions of people? If he did not take the job, surely another SS member would have ran the trains at least as well. If he had been born into any other situation, clearly he would never have killed at all. How then do we hold Eichmann responsible for causing a fire. Any civil servant in those hours would have lit the match as easily?

Eichmann had none of the struggle of Schindler of Schindler's List. Schindler allowed people to die. Anyone who didn't make "the list" was dead. In the memorable scene, Schindler broke down crying because he couldn't save more. Is that what makes him a hero rather than a criminal; the regret? Eichmann did not show the slightest regret.

And on the other end of the scale we have local son First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. He objected to a specific war and stood trial for it. Without comparing tragedies, the actions are diametrically opposite. Eichmann was complicit in his military's actions, Watada followed his own judgment, but both stand trial. At what point do we move from demanding someone follow orders to demanding someone deny them? Is it over two million deaths like Eichmann? Is it zero deaths like Watada?

Or can we look at this problem from a different direction. Maybe saving one life, like Schindler, absolves a million deaths. Eichmann chose to save no lives. Watada presumably saved the lives of Iraqis; but did he endanger the lives of fellow soldiers he would have stood next to overseas? I don't know. These questions are way above my pay grade. The movie gives no clear answers, only unsettling feelings.

In the movie Hannah Arendt even the American students discuss Jews as if they are not humans. Compare the way local police arrest "crumbs" and in courtrooms we wait for the "bodies". Maybe it teaches us to catch ourselves when we discuss problems facing Micronesian immigrants in Hawaii.

For fear of "spoiling" a two-year-old movie and a 60-year-old news story, I'll say Hannah believes Eichmann is guilty but only for about two million Jewish deaths. There is a third act reveal of who Hannah really blames for the death of the remainder of the Six Million, that comes from her own experiences during the Holocaust. This is the real crux of the story, how because of this (relatively short) passage on who she actually blames within the greater article, she loses friends, family, and no one will pay attention to what she really wants the world to discuss: "the banality of evil."


The "Let's Film All The Lawyers" movie festival continues at the Doris Duke Theatre until September 20th, 2013. They have promised next year to do whatever it takes to get my personal favorite law movie, Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney!