WHEN philosopher Hannah Arendt died in 1975, she was primarily known as an argumentative woman who coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Since then, her star has risen (literally: In 1990, two scientists named an asteroid after her).
Last year, as professors, journalists and intellectuals celebrated the centenary of her birth, she completed the journey of all great philosophers, from controversy to canon. Every week, it seemed, some new pundit would trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to the nation's enemies: Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iran.
In what is now thought to be her masterpiece, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," Arendt argued that men and women in the first half of the 20th century were lonely and anxious. Stumbling through the rubble of war-torn Europe, they searched in vain for the touchstones that once had made their lives meaningful and secure: religion, social hierarchy and national identity.
They found them in totalitarianism, sort of. Fitting men and women with a "band of iron," Nazism and Stalinism gave desperate individuals a sense of connection and structure.
Most historians who are truly familiar with the period have rejected this analysis. Supporters of Hitler and Stalin, they point out, were already integrated into society; the Nazis and Soviets, in fact, often worked through established institutions such as the military, the schools or the church. Mass violence spoke less to the psychic needs of the masses than it did to the political needs of the regime. Nevertheless, a number of writers and journalists have recently taken it up as an explanation of radical Islam, turning Arendt into the philosopher-queen of the war on terror.
The way they see it, globalization threatens the traditional customs and institutions of the Middle East. Unable to adapt to secular trends and the creative destruction of modern capitalism, Muslims and Arabs now seek meaning in a meaningless world. Enter radical Islam. Fundamentalist piety rehabilitates medieval truths; rigid gender roles re-create feudal hierarchies; senseless violence against Westerners and Israelis happily divides the world into us and them.
The main problem with this thesis is that, like Arendt's treatment of Nazism and Stalinism, it gives short shrift to politics. As we've seen again and again, radical Islamists are not driven so much by a feeling of being out of place as by their anger at long-standing U.S. support for Israel and repressive Arab regimes, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in Europe, discrimination against Muslims and Arabs.
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of Britain's counterintelligence and security agency, says that British suicide bombers "are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims" and by the perception that British foreign policy is "anti-Muslim." Intellectuals and journalists aren't wrong to turn to Arendt for insight into today's events; they're just looking for it in the wrong places. If they worried less about the Muslim world and more about their own, they might find a clarifying mirror in Arendt's other masterpiece, "Eichmann in Jerusalem."
Great crimes such as the Holocaust, Arendt argued in "Eichmann," often arise from small vices. Eichmann's was careerism. "What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world."
Eichmann had "no motives at all," she insisted, "except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement." He joined the Nazis because he saw in them an opportunity to "start from scratch and still make a career" and "what he fervently believed in up to the end was success."
Like war, genocide is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid. If it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted. Careerism, that pinched desire for self-advancement, makes the trains run on time -- not just in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia but in the United States.
When commentators try to explain how and why the nation went to war against Iraq, they generally focus on the neoconservatives who gave the project its philosophical underpinnings, or on the bad intelligence that persuaded so many others to back it. Few mention the rampant careerism that enabled the Bush administration to launch the war and to bungle the occupation. After a CIA station chief in Baghdad saw his career ruined because he wrote a negative assessment of the war, claims New York Times reporter James Risen in his book "State of War," others in the agency concluded that "there was a steep price to be paid for writing unvarnished intelligence reports about Iraq." As one colleague put it, "I thought he was committing career suicide." Virtually no one wished to follow suit.
And why did so few journalists stand in the way of the march to war? Because they genuinely believed in it? Because they were misled by the administration? Both factors surely played a role, but there was also a tendency to stick close to the conventional wisdom, to accept the leaks from the administration -- and the flashy Page 1 headlines they provided -- at face value rather than take the risky career move of challenging the prevailing narrative and braving the raised eyebrows of their peers and bosses. As longtime ABC News correspondent and anchor Sam Donaldson has admitted: "If you're a reporter at the White House, and you're thinking about further successes in the business, and you're nervous about your boss getting a call, maybe you pull your punches because of the career track."
No one reading Arendt today should conclude that the war in Iraq is the same as the Holocaust, or that newsroom staffers are little Eichmanns. They're not. What readers of Arendt might question is that quintessentially American wisdom, handed down by everyone from Ben Franklin to Ronald Reagan, that ambition is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Sometimes it is, but as Arendt reminds us, it's just as often the stuff of nightmares.