The ‘banality of evil’ in Ahn’s case

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The ‘banality of evil’ in Ahn’s case


Twenty-three years after being sentenced to three years in prison for assisting a student activist’s suicide, fellow activist Kang Ki-hoon was acquitted last week in a retrial. When asked what he felt toward the officials who handled his case more than two decades ago, he said, “I was reminded of ‘the banality of evil’ by Hannah Arendt.”

Arendt, a German-American political theorist, came up with the concept of the “banality of evil” after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi war criminal. Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, argued he had only followed orders, and Arendt concluded that great evil could be executed by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and, therefore, participated with the view that their actions were normal. She concluded that evil was not the actions by fanatics or sociopaths, but ordinary people who simply followed orders.

The moment Ahn Hyun-soo won a gold medal, I was reminded of Arendt’s comment, as mentioned by Kang. Almost all Koreans have something to say about Ahn’s becoming a Russian citizen.

Who should be held accountable? The Korea Skating Union at the center of public criticism? The coaching team suspected of creating factionalism? Other skaters who allegedly fixed the Olympic Games against Ahn? The former mayor of Seongnam who dismantled Ahn’s team? Or Viktor Ahn, as he is now known in Russia, who, in the words of many news reports, took revenge on his homeland?

When I watch short track speed skating races on TV, I can see how relative position matters. If short track racers decide to coordinate their race, they can block a competitor from moving forward. If I were the coach, I would have asked for one skater to sacrifice themselves for another, choosing another to move forward. For the coach, the goal is a gold medal for Korea, not the glory of an individual skater.

And it is solely the authority of the coach to decide who will play which role. From his point of view, it is fair to decide which skater will make the sacrifice this time and which skater will make it next time. It would be a serious problem if one skater was picked to win consecutive gold medals. The individual skaters are not the issue.

The investigation into Ahn’s case will find that no one was responsible. Ahn’s departure from Korea will be concluded to have been his individual choice and no one will be held accountable.

The murderer who was responsible for killing six million people was executed without ever realizing what he had done was evil. The government officials who destroyed a young man’s life 23 years ago were only following orders. We sometimes see victims, but there is never a culprit.

This is not the time to worry about another Ahn case. More worrisome is the future, when we may not have another skater as talented as him.

The author is a culture and sports news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 31


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