Monday, May 28, 2012

Hunting Eichmann

How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency 
Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi
by Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 409 pages

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Osama bin Laden would end up dead after he was fingered as the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. An evil so great had to be punished by the American government. It didn't matter where bin Laden would hide, for it seemed obvious that the Americans would find him. It was only a matter of time.

Yet bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of only thousands, while Adolph Eichmann was, by his own estimation, responsible "directly or indirectly" for the deaths of some four million Jews in the Holocaust. An evil of that kind needed to be punished and justice had to be seen to be done.

Hunting Eichmann is not only the story of the how the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, tracked down and captured Eichmann, but it also tells how and why Eichmann escaped justice after the Second World War. It is a spy thriller, though not in the style of James Bond. It is about real spies hunting a real war criminal. It is about their successes and failures. Ultimately, it is about the spies themselves.

Simply giving endless details of how Eichmann was captured in Argentina and spirited away to Israel for trial would grow boring. What keeps the story riveting is the glimpses into the lives of the agents themselves. We see what motivates them; how they'd all lost close family members in the Holocaust. We see how they walked a delicate line between the pursuit of justice and the desire for revenge, and where, in a couple of cases, revenge may have been the greater motivator of the two. Ultimately, we see the agents when they encounter Eichmann for the first time. Expecting to see a monster, they see a poor, bedraggled man with "shabby underwear" who they find simply "pathetic."

To their surprise, the face of evil is ordinary. The man once responsible for the deaths of so many had been reduced to poverty and a life lacking in power or direction. Those pursuing Eichmann had so strongly expected something different, that when Eichmann is first discovered to be living in a tiny, rented home, the agent who checked out the clue refused to believe that his quarry really lived there.

That may be where the value of this book lies; in the simple observation that evil is ordinary. Evil is not something we can't identify with because in the right circumstances evil may be us. While the pursuit of evil in the name of justice is still commendable, we may need to examine how we react to those who are "evil." How different are they from us? Do we try to help them overcome the evil as did a missionary who visited Eichmann, or are we the agent who volunteered to help out at Eichmann's hanging?

Hunting Eichmann is an exciting story and all the more fascinating because it is real. Its tale, and its lessons, are something we should all be familiar with.

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