“It was as though in those last minutes he (Eichmann) was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” -Hannah Arendt
The banality of evil. When Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem she painted him as entirely average, not particularly hateful, and committed wholly to the notion that he was following orders. Randall Terry is not analogous to Adolf Eichmann for a number of reasons, but Arendt’s famous (and, frankly, now over-used) phrase was one of the first things that occurred to me this morning after I attended (and protested) his press conference in Topeka proposing a filibuster of Sotomayor.
Terry’s banality comes in his manner. He does not (or did not today) come off as a lunatic or an idiot. He is not on the corner of the street warning of the apocalypse with an overgrown beard and loincloth. He’s personable, has a sense of humor, and is well spoken. He is smart, too. But make no mistake, he is extreme, he is fanatical, even most anti-choice people don’t want anything to do with him, and his rhetoric is dangerous. I suppose that what follows is not an outright iteration of why I think this is true, I think most people who read this blog already hold the position that abortion ought to be legal, that it is classless and dangerous to call health care providers “mass murderers” and compare abortion to the Holocaust, not to mention his thoughts on homosexuality and Islam. Rather, I want to sort of describe and comment on my experience.
As I drove downtown I was a little nervous, I didn’t know if anyone would show up, I wasn’t sure exactly where Sen. Brownback’s office was, or how many people on the other side would be there. As I drove down 6th Street, I saw the Phelps clan on the corner of 6th and Kansas and was actually a little relieved. I assumed that must be the place and that, if all else failed, I could protest them! I parked my car and walked tentatively up to their corner.
There were roughly 15 of them. I recognized Shirley Phelps-Roper and a daughter who is my age (and with whom I went to college). Most of the others were small children. One thing that sort of seemed funny to me was that several of them had iPhones and they were generally just standing there chatting while holding a bizarre and random array of signs. A few abortion signs, some generic “God hates the USA” stuff, and so on…
As I stood there I noticed that when people walked by they would just look down, at their cell phones, papers (downtown Topeka is, after all, largely a place where people work for state government, Banks, or non-profits), pretty much anything to avoid them. A couple people noticed that I was not with them and smiled at me or made comments. It was luck, perhaps, on my part that some of my signs applied to the Phelps as well (“Kansans against hate” with a sunflower and a heart was my favorite sign).
After standing there for about 15 minutes I realized that, as fun as this was, I was not in the right place and moved down the street about half a block where I found some press gathering for Terry’s speech. Immediately a reporter with the Topeka Capital Journal got my name and a quotation about why I was there. For a bit I looked around and tried to see if any of “my” people were around. Terry came out and the press conference began. I got up onto a bench so that I knew he could see my signs and stood there. He didn’t say anything new or provocative that he hasn’t already said on his website or for the press. Midway through his talk, the Phelpses came through singing a song, got into a van a drove off! I’m still trying to figure that one out. After a few minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw that my friend Stevo had shown up and he took some signs from me.
The press asked some questions, most of which I couldn’t hear, and the conference was over. But that was only the beginning of the experience! Steve rolled a cigarette and we stayed around to chat a bit. A few of Terry’s supporters were there, about 4, and a couple of them thanked us for coming. After a bit, Terry came over and struck up a conversation by thanking us for being there. What followed felt like players for opposing teams talking shop after a game or actors after a play. We lamented that most young people today don’t get involved in anything, that they don’t understand the implications of this issue, and so on. Of course, we have competing visions of those implications.
We went back and forth with what I hesitate to call light-hearted comments about the issue, but they truly were all civil and we didn’t dwell on any particular line of argument during the conversation. He asked us about religion, we talked about viability, the impact of Christianity on the world, the search for truth, the super-majority in the Senate, and lots of other things. All this time he was eating a wrap (it was around lunch) and it looked like it had no meat in it, so I asked if he was vegetarian. He said he was just trying to eat healthier and I suggested he give vegetarianism a try, being Pro-Life and all. We had a chuckle and he asked if I ate eggs. I do, and I joked that my worldview remained consistent.
All in all we spent about 15 minutes talking to him. He suggested we come back to the church, to read the scriptures, to search our hearts for the truth several times. But in a manner I would call “in passing” almost. It was clear from the beginning that we weren’t going to convince him and he wasn’t going to convince us, maybe that accounts for the niceties. We parted ways with a handshake and I told him to drive safe (which is, perhaps, a Kansas thing since people almost always have a drive ahead of them if they’re leaving since everything is so far apart).
Too often we want our opponents to be wild caricatures of themselves, raving and irrational. But this is rarely the case. I am reminded of the stories about how much Saddam Hussein enjoyed cookies while he was in custody. But… I like cookies, too! How can this be? Another example would be Mike Huckabee, I disagree with him on tons of policy issues but gosh if he isn’t a nice guy! I’d have a beer with George W. Bush. The list goes on… I think Terry’s positions are irrational, I think that when he and Bill O’Reilly call health care providers “mass murderers” and “baby killers” that no one should be surprised when a crazy person takes them at their word. Don’t let down your guard, stay focused on the issues, not the personalities and remember that, at the end of the day, we’re all people and we ought to be able to get along. As long as the pro-choice movement keeps coexistence as one of our main principles, we’ll be on the right path.