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prologue -- Eichmann's feet
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One winter day in the mid-fifties, a group of us fourth-grade boys gathered during lunchbreak at the brick wall at the far end of the schoolyard, a place far from the teacher monitors who, with hands in coat pockets and cigarettes in lips, were scanning the swirling games for evidence of trouble. Joined in a rough huddle, we passed a photograph from hand to hand. It showed Adolph Hitler and a group of German officers. The Fuhrer was smiling, and the soldiers were smiling, and everyone was dressed in uniforms and caps. The curious and wonderful thing, though, was that while the soldiers stood in polished boots, the Fuhrer did not, and one could therefore see that in fact he did not have feet but cloven hooves. The story told by the boy who had brought the photo to school (claiming to have found it in a drawer in his father's desk) was that Hitler was asleep when word of a great victory reached him, and he leapt from bed and rushed out to celebrate with his colleagues, forgetting to put on the jackboots that he used, under normal circumstances, to conceal his true genus.

For those of us gathered at the wall, the evidence before our eyes, and the import of that evidence, seemed reasonable, salutary, even comforting. Like most well-raised and well-protected children, we were confirmed dualists: good and evil were the opposing powers that made life intelligible, whether in Yankee Stadium, in the war with International Communism, or in the Hopalong Cassidy shorts that opened children's matinees at the neighborhood movie palace. That Hitler was Satan, and not human, made perfect sense given what we knew of his desires and bloody accomplishments--made more sense, in fact, than anything we had been taught, or might have overheard or imagined on our own (or, frankly, would later learn).

I'm not sure when my personal fling with dualism ended, but the letdown seems to have been gradual, as happens in most cases, and it was certainly complete by 1961, when Adolf Eichmann--spectacled, sallow, diffident, the kid who gets picked last for dodgeball--went on trial in Jerusalem for carrying out Hitler's plan to have Europe's Jews killed as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I was a teenager then, and so I knew the world for what it was: a road accident, a folly, a joke that wasn't funny enough; and I knew as well what Eichmann's feet were like. They were yellow-white and clean, like wax on an old candle, with faint traceries of red and blue blood vessels alongside the slim, girlish ankles; with arches that ached after a post-dinner walk or a trolley ride on which Herr Eichmann was obliged to stand because he had given his seat to an elderly woman. The toes were rather small, and somewhat mashed by their years in pointy-toed boots and narrow shoes. The toenails were clipped straight across and close, probably once a week, following a warm bath.

Primo Levi, who had the misfortune to become one of the 20th century's most accomplished students of evil, once noted that it was self-conscious artistry that distinguished the real thing from all its wannabe cousins--like stupid brutality or crude barbarism. "Arbeit macht frei," over the entry gate to Auschwitz, was the sprightly touch of evil, as was the inmate orchestra that played Mozart while the doomed were invited down from their railroad cars. In more recent years, Levi's standards were nicely met by the Serbs who paraded naked Serb women before naked Bosnian male prisoners and then dismembered the Bosnians who showed the slightest natural physical response. And biblically, the Serpent's use of Eve as a way to bring Adam to sin against God and at the same time place a chasm forever between man and woman certainly makes the grade.

I was mugged once, kidnapped once, and once knew a sadist. But I am no expert on evil. Further, I confess to finding it dull, inert, platitudinous matter, like Eichmann's feet. Auden, in my view, got it disdainfully right in "September 1, 1939": "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return." The accounting couldn't be simpler. The airplane aimed at the office lounge? The pension plan laid bankrupt? The bomb in the rented truck beside the day care center? Not a problem. You may need to check back a few years, but somewhere on a balance sheet or in an auditor's note you'll find the entry that seems to equalize the books: a pinched childhood, an unjust treaty, a dog-toothed god who sends signals.

I know very well what theologians say about the mystery of evil. For me, however, goodness, not evil, is the mystery. What complex logarithm could allow us to predict the trajectories of the WTC stair climbers, or of those who stayed behind with frightened colleagues? Or of those who called the answering machine at home to swear unregretting love from the edge of eternity, or of those who backed away from crowded elevators, saying, "No, you first. Please"?

Our story on the art of evil, conceived long before September 11 but perturbed, like so much else, by the events of that day, begins here.

Ben Birnbaum


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