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Fighting With Pinpricks: The Semiotic Eichman

Published: April 11, 2008
Section: Opinions

On this day in 1961, the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann began in Jerusalem. Pictures of these proceedings are among the most recognizable in the history of photojournalism—the three judges sitting atop a high dais with Eichmann below in a bulletproof booth, headphones around his ears to hear the translation. There is something profoundly and uncomfortably strange about Eichmann; he keeps popping up, like Leonard Zelig, under the strangest of circumstances. The tribunal, of course, found him guilty and sentenced him to death; however, the trial also marked the first attempt at constructing a sort of semiotic Eichmann, i.e. at managing Eichmann’s meaning and deploying that meaning in fields as diverse as ethics, politics, and science.

The Eichmann of the trial—a trial carefully orchestrated by the Israeli authorities and broadcast all over the world—symbolized a virulent threat to Jewish lives which necessitated the existence of a strong Israeli state which could ensure that the Holocaust would never be revisited upon world Jewry. One of the reporters covering the trial, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, saw things differently. Her Eichmann represented the capacity for individuals in advanced technological societies to abdicate their moral and ethical judgment and instead conform blindly to the directives of the state or of mass public opinion.

It is around this time also that another semiotic Eichmann becomes the object of scientific investigation. Stanley Milgram designed a controversial experiment to answer the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices . . . were just following orders?” He found, horrifyingly enough, that nearly all of his subjects were willing to deliver fatal electrical shocks to perfect strangers when ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The latest semiotic Eichmann is the “little Eichmann” which emerged in the mid-1990s when the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan published an article called “Whose Unabomber?” In it, he branded the Unabomber’s victims as “many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World.” Ward Churchill drew ire when he used the little Eichmann concept to describe some of the victims of the September 11th attacks. To Zerzan and Churchill, Eichmann is the exemplar for a long tradition of technocrats who are unconsciously complicit in mass murder from a comfortable distance.

With so many Eichmanns, each one carrying its own accusations and its own political solutions, what are we to make of Eichmann today? Certainly we are disgusted and angered by Eichmann, but how should that disgust and anger manifest itself? The Israeli government as well as Zerzan and Churchill would have us eliminate the Eichmanns, or at the very least council us not to object to those who do kill Eichmanns in the name of justice and peace. Arendt, on the other hand, places the responsibility squarely on the Eichmanns themselves; it is they who must recover their moral judgment. Milgram, perhaps the least interventionist of the group, would have us find a scientific explanation for the “extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.” Unfortunately, none of these seem a very promising avenue for us.

All four of the Eichmanns I’ve mentioned do share one thing in common. They are all indicative of a belief that Eichmanns still roam the earth, that even though Eichmann is dead, many more Eichmanns have sprouted up to take his place. To the people behind these multifarious visions of Eichmann, however, Eichmann always turns out to be somebody else.

I propose another semiotic Eichmann to solve this problem: the Eichmann within. Instead of scouring the planet searching for new Eichmanns “out there”, we should be looking at ourselves, at our communities, and at our society. Anyone who pays taxes in the United States, for example, has played some small role in bankrolling the murder of 600,000 to 1 million Iraqi civilians; we each participate—by either our silence or by the ineffectiveness of our protest—in Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites; many of us are still reaping the windfall of the slave trade. In short, if Eichmann has any meaning today, if in fact the whole terrible 20th century is to serve any function today, it must force us to interrogate the million ways in which we are all somebody’s Eichmann. Furthermore, we must then act to change the situation, because when our time in the bulletproof chamber comes, in this world or possibly in others, we will not be able to say that we were just following orders.