I was born on the morning of December 16th, 1961, a few minutes past midnight. In the hours leading up to the first expansion of my lungs, my red squalling face, someone an ocean away was making his final plea for mercy. That plea was denied. Utterly condemned, he drank half a bottle of red wine and walked  away from his cell with dignity. In his last moments he refused to see a minister, professed his love for Germany and Argentina, and claimed he died believing in god. Some people say those were just the last words he wanted heard; under his breath he muttered his wish that all present would follow him quickly.

My birth coincided with the death of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, something I learned at a strangely early stage growing up. Some call him the ‘architect of the holocaust’, and maybe he was. He oversaw task forces keeping count of the number of Jewish men, women, and children in German territories. He organized efforts to place them all in ghettos. He arranged the transportational infrastructure that made it possible to carry so many of them to their deaths in concentration camps— in fact, his methods were so efficient that about one third of them died in transportation alone. He wholeheartedly supported the elimination of Jewish peoples, and even Hitler put his weight behind some of Eichmann’s ideas. I’ve heard it estimated that somewhere between two and four million fewer people might have died if Eichmann had never existed.

The world tuned into his trial, and I think what people found most disgusting about him was just how terrifyingly normal he was. He didn’t have the decency to be a dastardly and villainous caricature of a person, to reassure the audience of his trial that Eichmann was an abnormality, some accident of human nature with no inward resemblance to themselves. He had a wife and four sons. He was weak, balding, ineloquent, and blinked numbly at the jury through thick eyeglasses. Yet he was once quoted saying, "I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is, for me, a source of extraordinary satisfaction." At the moment his sentence was completed I was busy learning how to breathe and cry, but I’m told he didn’t go to death filled with laughter. 

I survived on comic books growing up. Especially Superman and Captain America. Later in life I would sometimes picture a fight between ol’ Cap and some horrible Nazi like Eichmann, but then I realized how imbalanced that fight would be. With one punch Cap would crumple Eichmann like a soda can. He’d be mincemeat. Yet no matter how many times Steve Rogers hits him the fight could never be even a little bit even, because no matter how many soldiers Steve saves or how many Nazi noses he breaks, he doesn’t even come close to the impact Eichmann had on the world. When Captain America infiltrated HYDRA in Azzano, Italy, he managed to save the lives of 163 men. That doesn’t even make a fraction of a dent compared to the deaths Eichmann caused with good transportational infrastructure and organizational skills. When it comes to saving or destroying human lives, Eichmann has Captain America beat by the length of a small country.

I guess when I realized that, it made me rethink the whole idea of what a hero could be, or should be. I love Superman to death, but once I started thinking about the Eichmanns in the world, a lot of his antics seem performative at best. The real world has a surprisingly small number of falling cars to catch with brute strength just before they hit a few orphan children. However, there are a shocking number of terrible things about this world that we have the resources to solve if we could just figure out how. 

I distinctly remember it was the day after my eleventh birthday that my mother told me about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Over our eggs and toast she said that she and my father watched it all on the television, ate up stories about it in the newspaper. I was on a real World War II kick then, collecting all the Captain America comics and wartime posters I could, and I couldn’t get over the idea that Eichmann left this world right about at the moment that I came into it. My folks thought it was horrific how much harm someone so normal looking could do, just by sitting in an office and figuring things out. He reduced all those human lives into numbers. Hannah Arendt reported on him in Eichmann in Jerusalem and used his drabness to coin the term ‘the banality of evil.’ 

I would guess she meant that the worst of the worst kind of evil isn’t a hotheaded, passionate kind, but a cold, calculating kind, a kind of evil that keeps its head down and works quietly and effectively. I I found the same general idea when my courses a couple years later had me read about Dante’s Inferno. The very last and deepest circle of hell was disappointing to me as a thirteen year old. There was no blood, no guts, no hellfire. Instead, Dante’s final circle of hell, the one reserved for the very worst people imaginable, was a cold, dull, quiet place filled only with the sound of chewing. Satan sat in the center and each of his three faces was disinterestedly chewing on peoples’ legs and torsos. This wasn’t a Paradise Lost Satan with fiery and dramatic speeches, instead this one just sat there half-buried in ice and ate. It was just that level of evil with that level of banality that made Eichmann so disgusting. In fact, I read that the judge who sentenced him said the only reason he had to hang was that nobody alive could possibly be expected to want to share the earth with him.

I think maybe that’s where it started to get to me, the problem I was looking at. The very thing that made Eichmann’s evilness so repugnant was how inescapably human he was. Yet all the villains I knew, the ones who paled in comparison to the number of lives Eichmann had an impact on, were all inhuman, deranged, entertaining. They were comforting because they weren’t like us. They weren’t like me. But then, my heroes weren’t like me either. They were just as inhuman, and inaccessible, and somehow that was comforting too. I wasn’t born on an alien planet or made super-strong by scientists and that meant that the role of the hero was safely in the realm of impossibility. I didn’t have to bear the weight of responsibility for saving the world.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how wrong that was. I started to read about Jonas Salk, a virologist who developed a polio vaccine that reached 90 countries by 1955 and began to be used commercially in 1961: again, the very year that I first opened my eyes and Eichmann bit the dust. He vaccinated millions of children, making his own among the very first ‘polio pioneers.’ Salk was a bookish child, and spent most of his adult life devoted to study and research. He once said that the only thing he felt really interested in was the human side of nature; he loved and was fascinated by all things human. We have Jonas Salk to thank for the vanishing of the iron lung. The most good that’s been done in the world has been done by people like him who run headlong towards applying what skills they have towards results they can record. 

I was always taught just a few simple things; keep my head down, study hard, work hard. A few years ago I looked in the mirror and came to realize I had a striking resemblance to the man who died when I was born: my receding hair, my thick glasses, my shoulders with a forward stoop.

I’ve spent most of my life behind a desk, and I’ve kept my head down for most of it. Towards the end, I looked up to realize I found more success than I ever dreamed of, and I had let it build up so much I couldn’t possibly use it all. I haven’t lived the life I had hoped to when I was idolizing the men in my comic books, but I’ve found a way to live better. I came to realize the world won’t be saved with an army of supermodel superheroes who kick Nazis into the next solar system. What we need is an army of scientists, lab techs, accountants, statisticians, politicians, and people providing resources to point them in the right direction and say “go.” I know enough to say that I won’t shake the world as the next virologist or the next Stanislav Petrov, the man who decided to not start a nuclear war. Yet I have enough to be the one providing resources that people like them will need. I know that somewhere in a lab, or behind a desk, is sitting someone who looks exactly like me, who looks exactly like all of us, and has the capacity to save more good people than Captain America ever did.

The worst crimes the human race has ever committed have been done with our rational minds, reducing impact into numbers and carefully watching those numbers rise and fall. Our atonement should be well suited to match it. On the other side of the coin that was Adolf Eichmann, whose humanity brought out our disgust, there exists someone who is just as innately human. Someone who can do much more good than they realize, someone who brings out the very best of all that we as a species could be. Someone who could, someday, go into the grave dizzy with pride at the millions of lives they saved.


 

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