Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism

Talal Asad


Charles Taylor, one of the most influential living philosophers in the English-speaking world, has inspired many social scientists, including anthropologists. In his remarkable work Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity he traces the sensibilities that are central to the modern individual and argues that they have Christian (especially Protestant) roots. Prominent among them is the virtue of universal benevolence that is closely connected with a new concern with psychological interiority: “One thing the Enlightenment has bequeathed to us,” he writes,

is a moral imperative to reduce suffering. This is not just a sensitivity to suffering, a greater squeamishness about inflicting it or witnessing it. It is true that this undoubtedly has occurred, as we can see it in a host of ways, especially in the softening of penal codes which the Enlightenment helped bring about, partly under the influence of Beccaria and Bentham. But beyond this, we feel called upon to relieve suffering, to put an end to it. . . . We routinely grumble about our lack of concern and note disapprovingly that it requires often spectacular television coverage of some disaster to awaken the world’s conscience. But this very critique supposes certain standards of universal concern. It is these that are deeply anchored in our moral culture.[1]

It is this moral culture, so it is suggested, that provides the motivation for varieties of humanitarian action in the modern world, including international rules for military engagement, the forcible ending of state-led atrocities, and the humane treatment of prisoners. The assumption in narratives about the elimination of human suffering is that moral progress is advanced when the violence of military conflict and dictatorial repression gives way to the nonviolence of international diplomacy and democratic politics, when harsh physical punishment of convicts gives way to humane confinement, when war gives way to peace.[2]

The story of the birth of universal benevolence as a specifically modern virtue, the moral imperative to reduce suffering because life is sacred, is not unfamiliar.[3] But attitudes in countries that are heirs to what Taylor calls the Enlightenment imperative to reduce suffering are, of course, diverse and complicated. They are diverse in the sense that they may evince horror at what they see or remorse at what they have done; they may express a feeling of inadequacy at the thought that they are unable to prevent some terrible suffering or of complacency at supporting a virtuous cause from a position of security. They are complicated because they may articulate pleasure or gratification at the cruel punishment of people they have learnt to fear and hate and despise, or several emotions may contend in the same person. Of course the “standard of general concern” is not therefore meaningless. I simply stress the need to enquire into how people react to that standard, how they employ it, and what emotions help constitute it. But before I try to do this I want to bring out briefly some contradictions in our understanding and practice of benevolence.

Steven Pinker has recently argued that the modern world has become far less violent (“more civilized”) than at any time in history.[4] True, there may have been massive destructions of human beings in the twentieth century but proportionately these were less significant than the violence of premodern times when human populations were less dense on the globe. He explains this decline in human violence in terms of the growth in refined feelings attributable to the Enlightenment’s commitment to reason and to the gradual development of bodily and emotional self-control—to what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process”—as well as to the emergence of the state. Thus the modern state is seen not only as the crowning achievement of liberal democracy but also as the basis of a wealthy civilization founded on capitalism in which general concern for human well-being can flourish. This is consistent with a widespread belief that, since the end of the eighteenth century, peoples in Euro-America have become increasingly free and humane because freedom and humanity naturally reinforce each other.

But the conditions of benevolence are more complicated than this story would suggest. Take the modern US prison system, for instance. What are we to make of the fact that US correctional system, with all its cruelty, contains a far higher proportion of prisoners to the total US population than it ever did before?[5] Pinker thinks the very high rate of African-Americans in prison is evidence of a “decivilizing” process (the felons come largely from dysfunctional families) and sees the prison system as the necessary incarceration of actual and potential perpetrators of violence. The legal historian James Whitman has, however, a provocatively different view: It is precisely the political culture of liberal democracy, he declares, by which this modern statist form of violence is to be explained. Democratic politics enters more directly into the shaping of criminal legislation in America than it does in Europe largely because politicians who seek election want to be seen as being “tough on crime.” By contrast, democratic politics don’t permeate the European criminal justice systems, both because framing the law is largely a bureaucratic expertise and because judges and prosecutors are not publicly elected in European countries as they are in the United States.[6] Hence the paradox: the more pervasive the principle and practice of political freedom in liberal democratic society, the greater the probability of punitive vindictiveness.[7]

In sum: it may not be the benevolent values of “our moral culture” that matter but the contrary work done by legal disciplines and political structures. Whitman’s overall explanation seems to me persuasive, although some might ask why penal ferocity didn’t make itself evident in the earlier period of America’s history when, according to Whitman, criminal justice was less violent. The answer, perhaps, is that the major objects of punitive violence in that period were slaves and Indians, two classes of people who were regarded not only as a danger to settler freedom but also as an obstacle to the growth and flourishing of civilization itself. Liberal democracies may not now use violence against one another, as Pinker and others have maintained, but that doesn’t prevent their populations from using violence against their own “minorities” (African-Americans, East Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans) as well as—directly or by proxy—their armies attacking against states.[8]

The “Enlightenment” varied, of course, from one country to another, and it included religious as well as secular currents; it was also internally contradictory.[9] This should alert one to the possibility that what the modern world has inherited from the Enlightenment is not simply the moral standard that universal suffering should be reduced but a complex genealogy that is partly older than the eighteenth century in which compassion and benevolence are intertwined with violence and cruelty, an intertwining that is not merely a co-existence of the two but a mutual dependence of each on the other. In this context one might recall Michel Foucault’s observation that “sadism” was publicly recognized, theorized, and practiced in the Enlightenment.[10] Indeed, many writers in the eighteenth century sought to describe and explain the “natural” attraction to horror that they believed was a general human condition.[11] Perhaps Edmund Burke’s account of “the sublime,” in which he traced the ambiguous connections between terror and delight, was the most famous.[12] At any rate, unlike Whitman, Enlightenment thinkers saw contradictory motivations and outcomes as rooted not in politics but in the psychological and physical makeup of human beings. So my point here is not the banal one that Enlightenment thinkers did not overlook emotion in favor of reason (we know that many of them wrote at length about the centrality of emotion to social life); it is that many of them had a more subtle view of sympathy than some modern humanitarians have.

In what follows, I want to explore humanitarianism that uses violence to subdue violence and some of the paradoxical ways it is played out emotionally and conceptualized in modern law and morality. I ask: Why is modern morality most evident in expressions of aversion rather than approval? How, precisely, do benevolence and empathy (that moderns should cultivate) combine with cruelty and violence (that moderns should avoid)? What gives the modern project called “humanitarianism” its moral impetus? What accounts for the modern expressions of horror at crimes against humanity—distinct, that is, from the crime of murder?

In the introduction to their valuable collection In the Name of Humanity, Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin observe: “While people may disagree on the source of its power, almost everyone agrees that humanity should be considered sacred.” It is when the sacredness of humanity is violated that feelings of horror are generated and calls are heard for military intervention in the non-Western countries where atrocities are taking place. This is what I want to explore in what follows.


Humanism, Humanity, Humanitarianism

Much has been written on concepts of the human as the active subject of modernity, on humanism, humanitarianism, and the humanities. But of the innumerable books dealing in one way or another with humanity, virtually all take its sense for granted—a large, all-embracing category whose members have a single essence. There are introductions to the study of collective forms of life (“Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology”), theological reflections (“The Humanity of Christ”), but virtually nothing as far as I know that traces the historical formation of the concept of humanity as a collective subject. And yet it is in the name of humanity that the modern project of humanitarianism intervenes in the lives of other beings to protect, help, or improve them; it is in the name of humanity that progressivist doctrines of freedom are expressed. In other words, it is humanity that is said to suffer, humanity that calls for compassion, defense, and solidarity. So I try to think briefly about the network of words and concepts within which humanitarianism rests.

Historians affirm that three unique characteristics of the modern West (“modern science and technology, the idea of a common humanity, and the capacity for self-criticism and dissent”[13]) began to take distinctive shape in the Renaissance. It was then, apparently, that Renaissance humanism ushered in the beginning of a secular vision of universal order in which man was the sole agent and humanity the central idea. The European voyages of discovery, and the map-making techniques that flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gave Europeans a panoramic view of the globe as the “habitation of humanity.” The famous skepticism of Renaissance humanists like Bodin, Lipsius, and Montaigne was (so we are often told) a decisive step toward the full toleration of religious difference.[14] Once the medieval Christian idea of natural law was secularized, it gradually enabled the notion of humanity to extend its scope to Christians and non-Christians alike.[15]

This is one familiar account. But, as Richard Tuck has pointed out, humanist lawyers were interested only in man-made law and therefore had no interest in natural law. For them civilized life was urban. They had contempt for “pre-civilized people” and consequently they rejected the notion that natural law reflected the basic principles of a morality applicable universally.[16] So there is a more complicated story—one that brings ideas of justice, right, and punishment together as found in medieval and Renaissance theories of natural law, and then tells how they were reformulated in the articulation of state law and individual morality on the one hand, and international law and war on the other.[17] Humanitarianism became inextricably linked to these complex developments of the law.

Despite the discursive connections between humanism, humanity, and humanitarianism since the European Renaissance, their significance has differed greatly over time. We know that one of the sources of the concept of humanism in the nineteenth century was the growth of German philological and archeological studies. Humanismus (humanism) was the new word that referred to the new educational system based not simply on Greek and Latin but more generally on a romantic vision of Hellenism as the project of a rational European future. In mid-nineteenth century England, on the other hand, humanism became part of a discourse of secular rationalism and scientific positivism, indicating freedom from superstition and blind tradition on the one side and a perceived threat to the authority of the Church on the other. It was in nineteenth-century elite education that humanism (as word and concept) found its celebrated liberal values – the autonomous individual, the private self, and a public world of law and political order. Not only was classical Greece (as recovered by humanism) regarded as an origin of European civilization, it was also viewed as containing the seeds of Europe’s enlightened future. The “genius” of Renaissance Italy closed the “dark” Christian Middle Ages and anticipated what was subsequently described as the freedom and toleration of secular life—although looked at closely, what preoccupied the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists was not a liberated future but a rediscovered Hellenic past. The private self, so valued in liberalism, was not part of the humanist’s world. And yet it is precisely the idea of human experience that emerges among nineteenth-century English authors to refer to the lives of individuals belonging to different classes and times, an experience contrasted with the stylized epics and ritual drama of the Middle Ages. A secularized human experience became a way of talking about the essence of humanity (the object of humanist study), an essence at once universal and historical. But behind an awareness of the infinitely varied conditions of ordinary men and women throughout the globe hovered the metaphysical notion of Man—as in “the Rights of Man.” Yet this too was an entirely modern conception: for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists Man (humanity) had neither innate rights nor innate dignity—nor, for that matter, was humanity regarded as the hero of a narrative in which liberty continually expands.

In brief, the story of humanism is not about how the first steps were taken in the creation of a universal humanity—the object of humanitarian law. It is in part about how medieval literature was viewed from the perspective of the European nineteenth century, how the medieval concept of natural law as divinely inscribed morality was translated into a secular device for relating the plurality of the world’s customs to the universality of transcendent law—the accidental to the essential. It is also about how the humanist commitment to skepticism and self-preservation facilitated not only the emergence of the idea of the modern autonomous individual but also of the modern sovereign state confronting and subjugating others within and without.

According to Arthur Lovejoy, the European Middle Ages had taken up and Christianized the ancient idea of “a chain of being,” a hierarchy that included animals, man and angels, and in which each occupied a proper place. To be man—today generally referred to as human being—was to be one part, a special one of course, of a divinely created universe, to share in divinity through Christ’s dual nature as God and Man (the medieval meaning of humanitas).[18] Only later did two old ideas (eternal hierarchy and secular movement) fuse together to produce the unilineal schema of “the progress of mankind.”[19] Humanity, humanism, humanitarianism therefore belong to a tangled, shifting history.

One of the meanings of humanity that goes back to antiquity is treating others kindly (humanely). But being kind isn’t always understood as being nonviolent. Medieval Christian theology was very clear about this. Thus theologians of that epoch invested the crusades with caritas (love, benevolence, charity). The primary purpose of describing the crusades as an expression of love (for God and through God for one’s neighbor) was of course to recruit fighters to commit themselves as Christians to holy battle. And yet, although positive feelings for Muslims never appear in crusade propaganda, authoritative theologians insisted that “neighbor” includes the enemy, even if (as one of them put it) “love of enemies comes last in a scale of expressions of love.”[20] The point is that love was not incompatible with violence: St. Augustine had, after all, taught that punishment meted out to redeem sinners must always be infused with love. All men are sinners capable of being saved—sin and salvation are together the essence of being human, and the process of salvation requires repentance and penance. Another way of putting this is that mankind is seen as twofold: on the one hand there is what we can call, anachronistically, humanity, and on the other there is potential humanity, and the way from the one to the other is made possible by reaching out with charity and chastisement to those who need it. The mutual embrace of compassion and violence is thus central to this concept of humanity, and it continues as a strand in post-Christian military humanitarianism, although, with humanity’s moral independence from God, it acquires a different valence. The Christian idea that all men are sinners does not, of course, mean that they are equally so, and they can’t expect to be treated equally in this regard. Nor does it follow from the claim that all men are objects of divine love that each man has an equal right either against God or against other men. The historical Christian conception of the essential quality of being human is different from the modern conception in which each person’s desires have the right to be treated as seriously as those of others. In modern society, what criteria are appealed to in given cases to determine that the treatment is equal in given cases, that the right to equality is being respected, is complicated of course; the general rule that everyone has an equal right to respect does not by itself tell us how each man’s failings are to be dealt with in particular situations—whether kindly or punitively. The criteria for deciding this are culturally diverse; how they are used to bolster particular arguments varies. My point is that there is no simple move from a Christian idea of sinful man, of individual human beings who can all be saved by divine love and compassion, to the modern concept of universal humanity whose members are all entitled to equal respect.[21]

At any rate, in the later sense of the species, humanity was born and nurtured in the crucible of early modern conquest and settler colonialism. This becomes clearer when we ask how European Christians treated the human inhabitants of the Americas they first encountered as they began their conquests. How did they conceptualize that human relationship? In sixteenth-century America, Bartolomé de Las Casas and Hernando Cortés typified a contrast of opinions on the subject. Tzvetan Todorov notes that these two figures differed significantly in the sympathy that informed their relations with the indigenous population. It was Las Casas who insisted that Indians be treated humanely. And yet, so Todorov points out, “Las Casas and Cortés are in agreement on one essential point: the subjugation of America to Spain, the annexation of the Indians to the Christian religion, the preference for colonialism over enslavement.” Todorov’s account shows that convertibility is seen by the conquerors as a universal human characteristic.[22]

In the nineteenth century, when racial ideas were first articulated, convertibility as a human potential was denied various categories of people, who could therefore be kept in permanent servitude or destroyed en masse. But in earlier centuries Europeans had attempted to categorize unfamiliar cultures in a rich variety of ways, by making parallels with peoples in the Old Testament and in classical antiquity, with contemporary Christians (Roman Catholics), with heretics (Muslims), and with contemporary peasantry (paganismus, the pagan world) who were seen as untouched by civilizing influences. These parallels did not yet employ a temporal frame: evolutionary perspectives for understanding differences emerged later.[23] Although up to a degree convertibility legitimated imperial expansion, the call for converting human beings expressed a desire to bring outsiders within the fold of a universe in which eventually individual autonomy and secular reason became the source of morality as well as of truth for all human beings.[24]

Lynn Festa has made the interesting suggestion that the well-known interest of eighteenth-century writers in the thoughts and feelings of their characters (in their “interiority”) is to be seen not simply as an expression of the emerging modern self but more precisely as a reflection of colonial experience:

The protracted attention to the sustained threads of voice and character in sentimental narrative constructed a common language of psychological depth that secured the self in relation to others it encountered, while the sentimental mode’s investment in affective and psychological interiority helped distinguish the particularity of the human from the interchangeability of the commodity, the self-possessed individual from the dispossessed slave.[25]

That does resonate, of course, with the ideological account of the emerging (becoming fully “humanized”) modern self: its increasingly clear definition of the self as sole proprietor of itself, of self-ownership as the only basis for claiming to be the antithesis of thingness, something anyone may own. Festa’s insight is that this emergence, in which sympathy plays an important role, not only articulates the mutual constitution of self and other but is also fundamental to asymmetrical relations of power.

In Europe’s imperial centuries, argues Festa, encounters with strange peoples and places produced emotions that could threaten the integrity of the colonizing self. One way the latter could be reasserted or restored was by defining interpersonal relations in terms of the asymmetry of sympathy, articulating thereby an antithesis between the colonizing subject of sympathy and on the other the colonized subject of suffering, each side dependent on the other for its identity.[26] Another binary reinforced this structure of feelings: On the one hand, persons belonging to the community having the right to judge, command, and improvise, and on the other hand, persons (differentiated by race, gender, and religion) who are obliged, in varying degree, to submit. These intertwined sentiments and powers, rights, and duties helped to constitute both communities at the same time and to redefine the content and limit of humanity envisioned by each. Sentimentality was therefore not simply an ideological mask for imperial exploitation and violence. It was—and is—an emotional complex shaping relations of domination and subjection: colonial as well as domestic, male as well as female, collective as well as individual.[27]

Although feelings are analytically distinguishable from rights and duties, both are intertwined in humanitarian projects.[28] If one thinks of rights as asserted and passions as endured, it is not difficult to see why the process of “losing oneself in another’s misery” might be regarded as amounting to the displacement of reason. But the sharp theoretical opposition between rights and emotions always breaks down because of the interconnections between the two in practice: they each feed off and seek to control the other.[29] It was partly the volatility and unreliability of emotions, of feelings of sociability, that led Kant to abandon Europe’s eighteenth-century ethical theory based on sentimentalism and to adopt instead one based on the supposed neutrality of law. Because for Kant moral behavior presupposes the autonomous subject’s ability to judge and to act according to transcendent rules, it required a very different kind of theory in which concepts of right and duty replace ideas of sentiment.[30] That aspect of Kantianism, with its rights talk, has become the foundation for humanitarian law.

As word, concept, and practice, humanitarianism emerged in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of European nation states, the expansion of European colonial empires and the global development of capitalism. Yet the first usage of the words humanitarian and humanitarianism was theological, expressions by which the orthodox majority referred disapprovingly to Christians who subscribed to the exclusively human nature of Jesus.[31] One derived application was its reference to those, like the nineteenth-century socialist Pierre Leroux,[32] who professed the “Religion of Humanity.” The word humanitarian thus carries traces of the Christian idea of redemption, of Christ the Redeemer of humanity. Reaching out compassionately to another’s pain (or sin) not only redeems individuals who are endangered but also elevates humanity as a whole.

Attention to the content of the idea of humanity, to the language expressing desire and affect when talking about humans, and the political reasoning used variously to demand their liberation or improvement, their protection or sacrifice, indicates how complicated the process of recognizing humanity is. Not only have the limits to who can be included in humanity continuously shifted through modern history; an idea has also crystallized that the content of what is human is itself indefinite. The European drive to expand, by conquest, into areas where non-Europeans lived, and the latter’s consequent subjection, should not therefore be seen as a simple failure to fulfill the Enlightenment promise of universal equality. The idea of difference is built into the concept of the human. The question to explore further is why, for liberal Euro-Americans, violence, whether imposed or endured, is regarded as the indispensable means for securing order (the modern state) as well as for undermining it (modern revolutions). Another way of asking this question is this: If the development of human capacities and human powers is limitless, do they not spell the continuous destruction of existing forms of life—and therefore the continuous perpetuation of insecurity? How does humanitarianism fit into this process?


Historical and Psychological Origins of Humanitarianism

But first: in what sense is the rise of humanitarianism in today’s world a sign of a new sensitivity toward human pain? Compassion and charity are as old as human history, but helping human beings who are suffering—especially suffering due to human—has taken on new forms in modern times without entirely displacing older ones. In scope, humanitarianism tends to be global; ideologically it is linked in one way or another to the progressive emancipation of humanity, and emotionally it builds into “crimes against humanity.” Of course, NGOs like Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who seek to mend damaged bodies and relieve physical pain and suffering are not committed to “emancipation” anymore than the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is, but whether they approve of the fact or not, all nongovernmental organizations must work through nation states. Even nonmilitary movements have to address the question of sovereignty in one way or another, with the result that they can easily become entangled with US interventions in the South.[33]

In what follows I focus on military humanitarianism. I stress that this form is not a “perversion” of genuine humanitarianism, such as MSF, but another articulation of impulses and contradictions in the initiatives undertaken by and for human beings. As I have argued, the exercise of violence is intrinsic to the modern concept of the human. In military humanitarianism violence serves at once as defense (as in war) and as punishment (as in criminal justice).

In Gary Bass’s history of humanitarian intervention the focus is on nineteenth-century Europe. He is aware that this period also happens to be the highpoint of European imperialism but warns against confusing humanitarianism with it: “imperialism is about domination and superiority, not the empathy of humanitarianism. . . . Humanitarians do not want to govern other people, let alone the world; they, at best, just want to resist atrocity.”[34] Bass, like many others, links a new Euro-American sensitivity to atrocities in foreign lands to the growth of liberties and democratic politics at home:

As domestic liberalism grew up in Britain, the United States, and, to some extent, France, the governments there found their foreign policy being pushed by their own homegrown freedoms: above all the power of a newly unshackled free press that could report on foreign atrocities; and then a free society that could react with horror at those atrocities, and politicians inside and outside the government jockeying for political power by trying to capture that public passion.[35]


One difficulty with such attempts at a neat conceptual separation between political power on the one hand and empathy with victims of violence on the other is that the motives of humanitarians must traverse through imperial structures. In the first place the structure of global inequalities (dominated by rich and powerful countries) inevitably underpins such actions. Great Power interests enter into the identification of the legal category crimes against humanity, and determine whether a charge regarding a war crime or a crime against humanity can be brought before an international court. Legal forms can always be found (or the intervention covered up) in the interests of a grand strategy for strengthening democracy and security in regions hegemonised by the Great Power.

The places that most interested West European humanitarians in the nineteenth century were in the weakening Ottoman Empire. The massacres that occurred in European controlled territories—in the Belgian Congo, for example, in German South-West Africa, in the United States, in the Philippines, or in Algeria—did not call for “international” protection. But to regard this difference as a simple matter of double standards is to fail to see fully its ideological underpinning. The justifications of such violence were of course multiple, but the motive always included self-defense of humanity in the widest sense. States that kill in the course of their claim to be engaged in a universalizing project, that of raising “the best part” of humanity in the name of humanity as a whole, must be distinguished from the violence of “lower” societies.[36] And yet racist violence in European empires eventually became available in Europe itself.[37]

Euro-America’s universalizing project has been copiously written about, but here is an interesting example of its recognition. In 1915, France, Great Britain, and Russia issued a Joint Declaration in response to the Armenian massacres. Interestingly, the original Russian draft contained a denunciation of crimes “against Christianity and civilization.” France was concerned that this phrasing might offend its Muslim colonial subjects so “Christianity” was replaced in the final version by the word humanity.[38] Whatever the motive behind this verbal change what we have here is the translation of a particular into a universal: The moral content given to the term humanity as the synonym for Christianity reveals the assumption that whereas actual human beings are finite and particular—Turkish killers, Armenian victims, say—international law remains universal, a site that transcends differences between Christians and others. It is the ambiguous sense of humanity that gives it a degree of plausibility in this context. In order to reconcile the opposition between universal law and particular incidents of violence it was necessary to place humanity (at once an abstract class and a compassionate attitude) as a mediator between the two—between the right of sovereign states to use violence and the right of sovereign individuals to life and security.

This brings up the question of how the “political community” is imagined by humanitarianism. Bass does not clarify who deserves empathy and why: Victims, because they suffer death and destruction? Or perpetrators, because they believe they confront internal enemies who threaten the continuity of their collective existence? Michael Walzer writes that,

The commitment to continuity across generations is a very powerful feature of human life, and it is embodied in the community.  When our community is threatened, not just in its present territorial extension or governmental structure, but in what we might think of as its ongoingness, then we face a loss that is greater than any we can imagine, except for the destruction of humanity itself.  We face moral as well as physical extinction, the end of a way of life as well as a set of particular lives, the disappearance of a people like us.  And it is then that we may be driven to break through the moral limits that people like us normally attend to and respect.[39]

Walzer articulates a familiar liberal paradox: on the one hand a strict recognition of moral limits to what one may do to others, on the other hand a justification for doing anything, using any kind and degree of violence (so long as it works), if collective ongoingness is seen to be threatened. This prompts the following question: Do the acts to found and preserve a community of “people like us,” typically expressed in a nation state, deserve to be accorded legitimacy as well as compassion, even though its founding and continuity involves sustained violence and great cruelty? If not, why not?

Whatever the answer, there is, clearly, more to be said about empathy than Bass gives one to understand. The human ability to enter into, know, and feel the psyche of another is not incompatible with dominant power, because it renders the other vulnerable to more precise control. For that reason empathy is not simply a mode of generosity toward the other but may be a condition of insinuating oneself into and manipulating social and psychological structures to one’s own advantage.[40] Commercial, political, and religious movements from Euro-American states that penetrate the expanding reaches of empire have, of course, a long history. Connected with these movements is the enormous accumulation of knowledge about alien societies that has facilitated profit, rule and conversion. This knowledge (which in liberal states and empires is in part secret) sustained the arts of peace but peace in the language of empire included pacification, a form of “necessary” violence directed at the uncontrolled violence of territorially peripheral populations liable to erupt again and again. It is therefore not the sentiments of humanitarians to which one should attend but the logic of the will to dominate.

Pacification was dealt with by what were known as “small wars,” organized violence that anticipated today’s global strategies to secure peace. Security in this sense goes beyond humanitarian intervention by preempting acts of violence. Small wars might be thought of as proto-humanitarian interventions to the extent that they claimed to establish (imperial) peace and law in place of instability and cruelty. Indeed they undermine the usefulness of the binary classification “war” or “peace” for understanding the character of violence in modern life. The classic British military manual by Colonel Callwell, entitled Small Wars, appeared at the very end of the nineteenth century, followed by a line of similar works in Anglo-America, including the 1940 US Marine Corps Small Wars Manual.[41] Today the work of pacification has become more complex, acquiring, as in the recent U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a humanitarian dimension: converting the barbarians to freedom and progress that their humanity demands and, when that is not possible, eliminating them because of their inhumanity. The occupying army’s project is the restoration of stability and legitimacy in what the manual always calls the “Host Nation.” “Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy,” the manual states. “In some cases it can eliminate substantial numbers of insurgents. However, success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power. A COIN [counterinsurgency] effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN [Host Nation] government achieving legitimacy” (p. 39). In other words, the conversion of an entire society is the means of according it legitimacy, whose loss, incidentally, is signaled not by the US invasion but by resistance to it. The paradox is that for a government to “host” a foreign army it must already be legitimate and sovereign, and yet that army’s mandate is to restore the legitimacy and sovereignty of a “failed state.” The interesting lesson this paradox teaches is that “sovereignty” is much more than the affirmation of state rights within the Westphalian system: in its negative form, sovereignty is also part of a strategy for military intervention in other states, especially on humanitarian grounds.


A Note on Juridification

Colonialism has long ended, but the United Nations has recently justified military intervention into ex-colonial countries for humanitarian purposes by adopting a new legal norm known as the “Responsibility to Protect.” Its supporters stress that the norm underwrites a duty to protect and not a right to intervene. Critics worried by the license this might give the great powers to violate the sovereignty of vulnerable states are assured that this would happen only in exceptional cases and as a last resort—after it was clear that the state in question was not really sovereign because it was unable to perform the primary function of sovereign authority: the ability to control its entire national territory and to protect its national population. This definition of sovereignty as effective power opens up the possibility of using violence legitimately by other political agents who can claim competence and/or justice. This means that sovereignty may be challenged by humanitarian military intervention from outside even as militants and terrorists from inside challenge it.[42]

But the connection between the duty to protect human life and the human right to life is not self-evident. While the right is regarded as universal, belonging to every human, not everyone is expected to step forward to defend it—or can do so. So whose responsibility is it to protect? This question was easier to answer in colonial times: the rulers of empire decided because they had the power to do so. During decolonization, however, the claim to sovereignty against the occupying power, and therefore to the right to use violence legitimately, was made on moral-legal grounds. According to the UN Charter, where a state was entitled lawfully to occupy foreign territory, or an international organization to administer a territory, this was authorized for a limited time and purpose. In other words, nothing was to be done to contravene existing sovereign rights in that territory. The “Responsibility to Protect” norm is significantly different. It assumes that the rights of sovereignty are based on the de facto ability to control its territory and provide effective protection to its entire population. In the absence of this function the claim to sovereignty is itself undermined and the obligation to carry out the state’s basic functions devolve automatically on the international community (on the Euro-American powers). “This de facto grounding of authority,” writes Ann Orford, “marginalises the more familiar claims to authority grounded on right, whether that might be understood in historical, universal or democratic terms.”[43] The claim to the right to use sovereign violence by nationalist rebels against colonial authority, or by revolutionaries against an oppressive ancien régime, is now accorded to external powers who are expected to perform their humanitarian duty—but without giving them all other rights of sovereignty. It is partly for this reason that the external powers are not hampered by any responsibility for the consequences of their military intervention. The motive for the new norm is thus founded on compassion as an ethical principle, but its application lies in a domain that excludes ethics in favor of pragmatism (“what is doable”). Besides, there is no legal requirement to justify publicly what is actually doable and what is not, and why. Hence accusations by critics of “hypocrisy” and “double standards.” But these criticisms miss their target because they presume that the modern nation state should behave in ways it cannot. It is in the nature of the modern nation state to act “rationally and objectively,” without passion or compassion in its own interests, precisely because it is not a human subject. Thus unlike individual human beings, the nation state cannot sacrifice itself for a transcendent ideal.

Connected with the “Responsibility to Protect” there is the older work of the International Criminal Court whose purpose is to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. Military intervention for apparently humanitarian ends now carries with it a responsibility for bringing war criminals (and persons who have committed crimes against humanity) to justice. But as Michael Byers points out, “The fact is that most alleged war criminals will never appear in the dock. The few that do are those who have lost political power and powerful friends.” And yet this unevenness in trying perpetrators of “crimes against humanity” is not merely a matter of exerting political influence to favor friends;[44] it involves the use of national laws to sideline the determination of responsibility—and thus to give immunity to certain acts of violence.[45]

The new ideal of humanitarianism applies in principle not simply to physical protection against massacres but to any violation of human life considered broadly as a sacred essence, as the subject of a human right. It can therefore apply to the traditional status of women in occupied Afghanistan that is perceived as a violation of women’s human rights, and the military presence of NATO in Afghanistan is, in part, justified as an attempt to restore them; what this justification does, in effect, is to try to transform a conception of moral rightness into a positive right. Rights talk in such situations typically promotes bureaucrats, lawyers, and other specialists in human rights. My point here is that precisely because humanitarian intervention in the defense or restoration of human rights (including of course the right to life and the right to various freedoms) depends on the use or threat of violence, it should be understood not in terms of motives but of effects, as a rearrangement of the relations between violence, ethics, and sovereignty: as when people are either forced to be free or stopped forcibly from behaving freely by the legally authorized powers when such behavior constitutes “a violation of human rights.”

The ferocity and destructiveness of war in modern times have grown exponentially; the ingenuity that has gone into the technology of war is a matter of common knowledge; the ingenuity in constructing law so as to expand the scope of legal killing by complicating responsibility[46] is less widely appreciated but equally impressive. At the level of international law the “Responsibility to Protect” that legalizes military action is a prime example. I want to emphasize not only the well-known fact that law is a principal means of consolidating state control over its population but that it is also part of international strategies for perpetrating violence. The purpose of law is said to be to establish order, to protect individuals and their property, to determine responsibility. But the complexity of the language of law, the indeterminateness of its meanings, makes it possible to extend coercive—even destructive—behavior legally. It is law that defines the momentous distinction between humane and inhumane suffering. It is law that extends the scope of punishment.

Public life and experience in liberal democratic society have become increasingly juridified. The process of regulating social life, both civil and military, of deploying human life productively in peace and in war, of regulating birth and death within the state—especially technologically aided birth and delayed death—is guided largely by ideas of individual freedom and equal respect, and is therefore fundamental to liberal politics. But with increasingly disparate definitions of culpability, of guilt and innocence, the potential for violence—both “responsible” and “irresponsible”—itself grows. And irresponsible violence comes to be seen as a crime, in which intention (the telos that is part of the act) rather than motive (the narratives by which the act is justified to oneself and others) is the central organizing concept. Thus juridification immediately brings up the question of culpability and punishment. But a liberal democratic state goes beyond legal devices for responding to criminal violence, because its primary duty is to protect its citizens; the conviction that the state is surrounded by enemies abroad and at home calls for laws that establish protective measures. In relation to secret enemies, the measures themselves must be secret and indefinitely expandable because one never knows in advance what measures will work effectively. The rulers of liberal democracies thus decide secretly on the balance between civil rights and civil security. In the matter of security the laws may not be secret but their interpretation apparently can be.

The idea that the failure to stop massacres is due to the absence of relevant laws, that what is needed is humane reform of the law, is in effect a call for the further juridification of social life, by which some kinds of violence can be categorized as crimes against humanity and punished accordingly. For humanitarianism, acts of deliberately killing civilians (as opposed to lawful combatants) are taken as violations of the essence of humanity and not simply as proscribed violence. As I proposed above, the abstract concept of humanity can serve as a mediator between the timeless universality of international law and the particular incidents of lethal force because of its double sense of biological species and compassionate behavior. Humanity is able to play this role, passive and active, because of the metaphysical conception of life that underpins it.


On Inhumane Killing

What exactly is the metaphysical conception of life? Clearly the word itself is used in many senses: social and public life, mode of life, life sentence, the principle of vitality, the divine gift of eternal life. But its centrality for the concept of humanity requires further consideration.[47] One way of approaching this question is to explore the feelings evoked by the killing of human life as opposed to the slaughter of animals for food.

I argued earlier that humanitarian interventionism is not satisfactorily explained by increasingly refined sensibilities (Taylor), or by the emergence of democratic politics (Bass).[48] What gives it its moral force is horror at the violation of human life. But what precisely does the horror consist of? In posing this question I am not interested in the well-known fact that the media select and present acts of violence by legitimizing some sentiments and intensifying others, but in the concepts that underpin the way horror is produced as a response and that make it effective.

The horrific nature of the slaughter of “innocent” human beings (“civilians,” “women and children”) is deeply implanted in the social imaginary of modern Euro-Americans as barbaric and savage—as morally intolerable to civilized sensibilities. It is this sensibility that also fuels the cause of military intervention (“We cannot watch and do nothing!”). Barbarians and savages do not have the notion of collateral damage, which explicitly allows the civilized to kill noncombatants in military action, because only the civilized have conceptions of legal responsibility in warfare. The question of intentionality in modern war is directed at defining legal—responsible—killing; it is generally acknowledged that a military strike against a civilian target will kill a surplus and that those excess deaths will be legally covered as long as the killing is “proportionate and necessary.” And there is always, as a matter of modern military etiquette, the obligatory public expression of regret at such killing. Moderns believe that unlike barbarians and savages, civilized fighters act within a legal-moral framework; the law of war is a crucial way of restraining killing, in manner and in number. Barbarians do not have such a framework. Not only do they not have external rules to restrain them, they have no conception of redemption (or secular regret) after having killed. This is why, so it is said, moderns find the unrestrained and unrepentant killing by barbarians and murderers shocking.[49]

But why is dismemberment by a machete, for example, more shocking (more “barbaric”) than the same result obtained by a missile? The interesting point is that being hacked to death by a machete (or blown up by a suicide bomber) is regarded as inhuman, a notion that presupposes there are human ways of killing and dying as well as inhuman ones. Indeed, ways of killing and dying are part of how we define the human. But the question remains: Why are some representations of inflicting pain and death felt as an assault on the sensibilities of observer or reader—as revolting—while others are simply occasions for exercising the virtue of compassion? What makes “gratuitous cruelty” an index of “barbarity,” a sign that perpetrators are on the margins of the human? Mary Douglas famously proposed that horror and revulsion are a response to events and things that do not fit into normative cultural categories.[50] Is gratuitous cruelty an event that doesn’t properly belong to morally and legally permitted violence either in peacetime or in war? At any rate, one may suggest that cruelty is thought to be gratuitous because it violates humanity and not simply because it deliberately inflicts pain and suffering on humans.

Savages, we are given to understand, cannot be said to disclaim responsibility for killing and maiming large numbers of the enemy’s non-women and non-children because they have no feelings of remorse about torturing their enemies or subjecting them to a painful death.[51] They cannot—and would not—say they didn’t intend to kill. The question of intentionality in modern warfare (including humanitarian action) has become crucial in defining legal—responsible—killing. Moderns believe that unlike barbarians and savages, civilized fighters act within a legal-moral framework; the law of war is crucial for restraining killing, in manner and in number. Savages, unlike moderns, are strictly speaking not persons on whom legal or moral responsibility can be affixed; unlike civilized persons, they have no conscience, no regard for the sacredness of life. It is said that moderns find cruel killing barbaric and shocking because it appears to challenge the very basis of sound moral responsibility: it foregrounds character (it is the nature of barbarians to be cruel) in place of capacity (the subject either has or does not have the authority to use violence). It is essentially the character of the barbarian (or, for that matter, of the terrorist) and not his deed that is regarded with horror. From William Hogarth’s picture of the murderer Sarah Malcolm awaiting execution in her cell[52] to anonymous sketches of heavily bearded jihadi prisoners being tried for terrorism in a US court, what is perceived and portrayed is the character (physical sign) of cruelty itself. It is not the absence of rules that defines barbarism but the inability to respond with horror at cruelty, to recognize cruelty for what it is. Thus for many people the trouble with torture is not the absence of rules but the fact that it’s practice evokes horror. And horror is not an interpretation but a sedimented predisposition. Hence the typical debate about torture in liberal society: Should it be condemned as a self-evident evil or judged (reluctantly) as sometimes necessary that therefore needs to be defined by legal rules in order to avoid “gratuitous cruelty”?

Most people (other than torturers) are horrified at witnessing torture. Ironically, torture by state officials can sometimes be reconciled—even if not quite authorized—with the law that prohibits it by resorting to legal argument, especially when it has to do with saving the lives of nationals. Thus when the Israeli Supreme Court in its opinion refused to give a legal rule specifying conditions under which torture can be used it proposed that the torturer may have a “necessity defense” were a criminal charge brought against him.[53] It is not his character that is in question but his legal capacity. “Necessity” as a possible legal defense of his action is based on the principle that the nation state is inviolable and must be defended at any cost. Since there is no question of terrorists being able to claim such a defense, their violence meets with greater moral condemnation. The legal theorist Paul Kahn—who cites this opinion—elaborates the notion of the sacred attached to the nation state:

what is most important about our political culture [is] our willingness to kill and be killed. . . . At stake in the existence of the nation state has been the presence of the sacred. The polity begins as a particular community with its own history only when the finite goings on of individuals are touched by the sacred.[54]

Of course the state is not a living human individual but it is accorded the sacred quality that individual human life has. This may be because, as Hobbes famously described it, the state is “a mortal God,” but it may simply be because the state is endowed with (a claim to) life eternal. The state is not itself human, in fact its transcendence may be part of its claim to sacredness, (Emile Durkheim thought that that was what defined society), but it gives essential form to individual humans. Its ongoingness comes to be seen as the force that increasingly gives shape to individual lives, and like the Kantian moral subject the state produces and imposes on itself laws of its own.


The Sacredness of Life

But what precisely is the sacred? In an essay on the moral dilemmas of humanitarian movements such as Médecins sans Frontièrs, Didier Fassin writes about the way each nation state at war describes the deaths of its own soldiers as sacrifice and the deaths of enemy civilians who are not “terrorists” as collateral damage. “In contrast with those ‘human sacrifices,’ the humanitarian organizations can claim the sacredness of all lives. Whereas Western armies consider life sacred only when it is on their side, MSF and its colleague organizations defend the universal value of lives.”[55] A few pages later, Fassin comments on Adi Ophir’s provocative remark[56] to the effect that both terrorists and humanitarians challenge sovereignty:

terrorists (especially suicide bombers) stake their own lives; humanitarians do not. The former reject the sacredness of life—theirs and others’. The latter claim it as a supreme value—definitely for the distant others, but even more so for themselves.[57]

In Fassin’s view, that helps to explain why the former evokes horror and is therefore seen as barbaric.

These are interesting suggestions. It is generally recognized that as a concept sacredness seems to be ideally linked not only to the state but also to humanity, to human life as a universal. However, before turning to the idea of human life, one might ask what life is. Foucault famously addressed the question of what life is before he went on to talk directly about biopolitics. In classical taxonomy, Foucault wrote, organisms are described in terms of four variables: form, number, arrangement, and magnitude. From the eighteenth century onward function becomes the dominant concern: “it is life in its non-perceptible, purely functional aspect that provides the basis for the exterior possibility of a classification.”[58] Not only is this shift from a taxonomic to a synthetic notion of life now the object of biology, Foucault claimed, it is itself the primary condition for the possibility of the modern science of biology. But modern biologists have a different view. “Life,” insists Ernst Mayr in his magisterial history of biological thought, “is simply the reification of the processes of living. Criteria for living can be stated and adopted, but there is no such thing as an independent ‘life’ in a living organism. The danger is too great that a separate existence is assigned to such ‘life’ analogous to that of a soul.”[59] At the conclusion to his massive collection of and commentary on historical texts on the nature of life, André Pichot observes that modern biology ignores the notion of life as an existent altogether and is content with analyzing objects that common sense calls living, an analysis that demonstrates their possession of several identical physico-chemical characteristics. When a developmental process is in itself regarded as life” it becomes, he says, a metaphysical idea rather than the basis of experimental science.[60]

My point is that whether the object of biological sciences is “life as a distinctive process” that comes to en end in each organism or as distinctive physico-chemical organization that eventually disintegrates, life as a metaphysic may be coming to an end, and with it some aspects of taken-for-granted humanity. The boundaries of biology have increasingly dissolved even as the redefinition of living things in terms of information has reduced it to technology.[61] The revolutionary developments in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are said to have extended our conception of life by appropriating our concept of the designed machine, but in the process each concept undermines the other. What we are faced with now is neither life nor machine, but the possibility of living machines with replaceable parts that are together “animated” by a code. But the question I want to pose here is this: How do we apply the concept of sacredness to life as a universal and then go on to say that humans must be legally protected precisely because each individual is uniquely human? The answer hitherto has been that humans do not belong to a historically constituted category; they partake of a universal, unchanging essence. What, however, happens to the notion of humanity’s sacredness given the new developments in genetic engineering, robotics, and others?

My thought is that we might begin not with the law’s definition of the destruction of human life as a crime because it violates what is sacred, but with the response itself that sees such an act as horrible violence and by that response apprehends life as sacred.[62] This shift would direct attention to the notion as it has come to be used and translated from and into different languages. At least since the nineteenth century the sacred has been associated with all that is mysterious in religion, with the generation of fear and awe in believers, and with their imperviousness to rational explanation. Its secular uses—as in talk about the sacred character of the sovereign territory, constitution, and the spirit of one’s own nation—are metaphorical but not, therefore, without force of their own. It should be noted that in the history of the church profane things, persons, and spaces were rendered sacred. The lives of saints, hagiographies, were presentations of sacredness to be heard as a story of wonderful signs, a narrated life beginning with miraculous birth and ending with wondrous death. What is special, what is sacred, is the power expressed in and by the story to those who would hear, and the reverence such hearing demanded. Of course sacredness was never actually distributed equally among all human lives—and I refer here not just to the difference between the killing of Christians and of infidels. The killing of Christ himself (the violent ending of a divine/human life) was the sacred event for Christianity. But the visible church did not (could not) declare that that sacrifice, that killing, made life inviolable – although it did teach that Christ’s death on the Cross was at once sacred and redemptive, that it gave birth to “life eternal” to all who would believe.

Usages of the Christian term sacred (and its cognates) differ from words that are commonly offered as equivalents in other languages and that are attached to different behaviors and sensibilities, to different language games, different forms of life.[63] If a word by which repugnance, awe, distance, censure, reverence, circumspection, and fear (among other emotions and attitudes) are varyingly combined in different practices, then the assumption that the sacred is a universal concept is rendered highly problematic. As Wittgenstein would say, the grammar of the sacred articulates the form of life of those who use it. The sacred, therefore, does not explain things universally; it presents ways of relating to, experiencing, and talking about particular events in life. Put differently, the sacred is a Christian concept—if not in origin, then in how it has been inherited in modern secular discourses through a Christian history, where it once referred to the powers of the priesthood and of the Eucharist with its promise of eternal life. The modern secular concept of humanity as sacred echoes this but in a very different key—to the extent that humans are killed in war they are officially described as having “sacrificed their lives in defense of their country.”

Interestingly, it is not only life but death too that incites the language of the sacred in secular cultures. In every modern secular state there are laws prohibiting the “desecration” of dead bodies.[64] Here the sense of “desecration” takes the sacred for granted precisely because a corpse is a human remnant (animal corpses don’t receive the same treatment, at least in modern secular society). The circularity is evident. The shock expressed a year ago in official quarters by an online video of US Marines in Afghanistan urinating on Afghan corpses raises interesting questions about the sacredness of life. Thus the Department of defense Spokesman, Captain John Kirby, referring to the video declared that: “Regardless of the circumstances or who is in the video, this is egregious, disgusting behavior. It's hideous. It turned my stomach.”[65] Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta condemned the footage “in the strongest possible terms” and promised an investigation; Secretary of State Hilary Clinton found the behavior deplorable and utterly inconsistent with American values.[66] Leaving the embarrassment aside, and the complaint that a military code of conduct had been violated, what was not explicitly discussed was the general sense that the Marines had desecrated corpses. What it reveals is the symbolic violation of life’s sacredness through an exhibition of contempt and loathing for its “container.”[67] Is this the reason why the act evoked horror and why it seemed appropriate to threaten its perpetrators with legal sanctions?


The Violence of Sovereignty

I turn finally to the question of why the imminence of massive state violence does not provoke horror. I begin by citing an extract from Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir about the answer given by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a question he had drafted for President Kennedy in 1961 on the latter’s order. The question was: “If existing general war plans were carried out as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China?” The JCS replied quickly, within a day or two. Their estimate gave two figures: “The lowest number was 275 million dead. The highest number was 325 million.” Ellsberg then drafted a follow-up question about countries contiguous to the Sino-Soviet bloc, and further estimates came back quickly. “The total death toll from our own attacks, in the estimates supplied by the JCS, was in the neighborhood of five to six hundred million. These would be almost entirely civilians.” Ellsberg then concludes that this amounts to “A hundred Holocausts.”[68] Defenders of the Enlightenment are surely right that it has bequeathed unique standards of universal concern for all of humanity. But to this one should add that these standards are typically expressed in careful estimates of pain and suffering. Premoderns—including “primitives”—did not engage in such calculations (the science of statistics had not yet been devised) and they were consequently more “indiscriminate” in their killing than civilized moderns are. What Ellsberg points to, however, is a scale and kind of human destruction for which there is no adequate way of making comparisons, no possibility of effective judgment by the law, no meaningful space for humanitarian action. Neither bodily and emotional self-control (“the civilizing process”) nor secular reason can be expected to preclude such an event.

In 1996, the World Health Organization sought an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice about the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The court eventually replied that there was neither authorization nor prohibition in international law, that such weapons were unlawful if they failed to meet all the requirements of the UN charter or all the principles and rules of humanitarian law. Its final conclusion stated that “in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”[69] Clearly, the phrase “extreme circumstances” in this statement refers not to the massive slaughter of entire populations but to the life of a political entity. In that sense the sentence I quoted earlier from Foucault (“the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population”) is not quite correct. The court’s reference to “extreme circumstances” indicates that limitless violence (and the terror unleashed by such violence) may be necessary if that is held by a sovereign state to be a matter of its survival. The law, as enunciated by the court, is based on the assumption that the sovereign state is a legal person, that as such it has the right to exist and therefore an absolute right to defend itself. Thus if the United States government—or Israel or Pakistan or India for that matter—decided at some point that its survival as a sovereign state was at stake then the genocidal use of nuclear weapons would not be illegal. (Think of the Cuban missile crisis.) Put in patriotic language, the state’s being must be defended against enemies whatever the cost.[70] This claim to sacredness is at once familiar from Christian history, and yet entirely new in its secular perspective.

My point is not that the court gave a nuclear first strike the stamp of legality. What it said, in effect, was that given the assumptions on which international law is based (state sovereignty, the certainty of the law, the right to use violence necessary for self-defense—and thus for maintaining order that contributes to national identity), it could not declare decisively whether the perpetration of such an act against an opponent was legal or illegal, even if its use were to lead to the destruction of humanity. The court is simply concerned to determine legal responsibility for the perpetration of violence against a foreign population even before war has been declared (the decision to discharge nuclear warheads must be made and acted on in seconds). It must give one clear answer: the judgment’s certainty requires that it be singular, and its authority requires the final elimination of all other possible answers. (Therefore the panel of judges’ split decision had to be resolved by the President’s casting vote.) The panel presents its judgment as the application of a universal principle to a particular case. Legal certainty is achieved in this act of judging, even though the content of the judgment affirms uncertainty. The judgment pushes the question of responsibility aside but not in an arbitrary way. It establishes a singularity of meaning by pointing to a space that is at once a product of the law and yet a space where acts stand beyond legal responsibility. The court has no jurisdiction (the legal right “to pronounce the law”). The genocidal violence of a nuclear first strike cannot be addressed directly because it is a potential act not an actual one. But the substance of the judge’s decision, at once within and without the law, makes it possible for the nuclear state to threaten to wage nuclear war without incurring responsibility.[71] The reason for this is, partly, that the state (Leviathan) claims “eternal life,” and is hence entitled to defend itself by any means possible, even by waging or threatening to wage, nuclear war in which all of humanity might be destroyed. But perhaps more important is that because the state is not itself human its involvement in massive violence—especially the violence of a possible future nuclear holocaust—pushes horror outside popular consciousness. It is the perpetration of violence by human agents against other humans that is emotionally graspable, even though the way in which modern law works often serves to diffuse the responsibility of agents for violence and cruelty when they act on behalf of the state.


On the Sacredness of Human Life

Our sense of horror thus seems to be largely directed at individual acts, actual and potential, those that threaten the sovereign state’s life not by heavily armed enemy states but by militants who perpetrate their violence against the state from within. To examine this latter point I cite Taylor again, this time from his discussion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils, in which he seeks to explain terrorism as a monstrous form of violence in our time:

One of Dostoevsky’s central insights turns on the way in which we close or open ourselves to grace. The ultimate sin is to close oneself, but one’s reasons for doing so can be of the highest. . . . We are closed to grace, because we close ourselves to the world in which it circulates; and we do that out of loathing for ourselves and for this world. . . . Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. . . . Dostoevsky . . . gives an acute understanding of how loathing and self-loathing, inspired by the very real evils of the world, fuel a projection of evil outward, a polarization between self and world, where all evil is now seen to reside. This justifies terror, violence, and destruction against the world; indeed this seems to call for it. No one, I believe, has given us a deeper insight into the spiritual sources of modern terrorism or has shown more clearly how terrorism can be a response to the threat of self-hatred.[72]

Taylor’s Christian idea that terrorism, a quintessential form of “evil,” points to indifference toward what Christians would identify as sacred power (what Taylor calls “grace”), may provide another clue to why certain spectacles of suffering provoke moral outrage, why the enormity of global destruction, such as nuclear warfare between states, does not disturb liberal equanimity whereas the violation of the individual human body’s sanctity, the very idea of hacking an individual to death or perpetrating what is called “gratuitous cruelty” toward individuals, horrifies. In finding some acts loathsome it’s not merely suffering, but “a violent and obscure disgust of being against the threat that seems to appear from an exorbitant outside or inside, beyond what is possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.”[73]

The abstraction called “life,” the object of care and order by the modern nation state as well as the object of sacrifice for the nation state, echoes the life eternal offered to all humans through Christ’s sacrifice. And each human self, the location of that abstraction and the subject of redeeming faith, is now describable as sacred. One should note that the Christian tradition was not always unchanging in its attitude to violence done to humans. In the early Middle Ages killing humans in battle—even a battle the Church itself had approved of—was regarded as a sin that had to be expiated. But the emphasis was not so much on the absolute value of life as on the defilement that killing occasioned and the penances that had consequently to be undertaken to purify the sinner.[74] This earlier attitude might be analyzed as an encounter with the sacred (a dangerous force that operates within a bifurcated space of pure and impure as well as sacred and profane)[75] but not in the sense used by secular discourse when talking about “the sacredness of all human life.” At any rate, the doctrine changed in the thirteenth century with the crusades when killing (the infidel) was no longer a sin but became a means of purifying sin. In his endorsement of the Knights Templar, St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it thus:

But the Knights of Christ may safely fight the battles of their Lord, fearing neither sin if they smite the enemy, nor danger at their own death; since to inflict death or to die for Christ is no sin, but rather, an abundant claim to glory. In the first case one gains for Christ, and in the second one gains Christ himself. The Lord freely accepts the death of the foe who has offended him, and yet more freely gives himself for the consolation of his fallen knight. The knight of Christ, I say, may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently, for he serves Christ when he strikes, and serves himself when he falls. Neither does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good. If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil.[76]

The ethics of military killing thus becomes directly concerned with intention (whether virtuous or vicious, religious or secular) as distinct from effect. One consequence of that shift is that the paradox of benevolence and empathy on the one hand combining with cruelty and violence on the other tends to get obscured in the modern context.

Military interventions today are aimed not simply at protecting victims but at protecting them from evil. Certainly the last two American presidents have initiated and extended the Global War on Terror and publicly described the enemy as “evil.”[77] And they have each been rewarded by being elected to a second term, despite their curtailment of domestic civil liberties and flouting of international laws in that War. The fearful citizenry seems to agree that evil cannot be fought if state violence is limited a priori. (Carl Schmitt’s definition of politics in terms of friend-enemy is closer to liberalism as it now finds itself than either he or his liberal critics have been prepared to concede.)

The intellectual to whom American policy makers owe most ideologically is Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who has been and remains today a strong influence on the makers of American foreign policy—from George Kennan through to Barack Obama. Central to Niebuhr’s theology is his doctrine of sin: sin is not simply the propensity to do evil; paradoxically, in the form of institutionalized killing and destruction, sin can become a means of combating evil as St. Bernard of Clairvaux had argued centuries earlier. For Niebuhr this is tragic because in using power to defend the world against great evil one is often obliged to act sinfully, and so one sacrifices one’s virtue—perhaps one’s soul—in performing this duty. In this view, the perpetration of cruelty by the military is ultimately motivated by compassion when it aims at ending greater human suffering; means and ends are discursively linked together so that they can be viewed as essentially and not accidentally connected. Obama put his endorsement of Niebuhr this way: “there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”[78] It is not immediately clear what Obama means by “there’s serious evil in the world.” He does not simply mean that there are conditions (and people) that threaten American lives and the interests of the United States; he refers theologically to an ineffable power confronting the spirit of God, a power that evokes horror among the faithful because it corrupts and destroys all that it touches in the world. Whatever Obama means, evil is a notion frequently employed by humanitarians to describe the disasters they seek to address.

The connections between religion, ethics, and violence remain complicated even in our age of secularity. And of course the terrorism of nonstate actors is not the only place where those connections can be traced. Thus on 12 September 2001, William Cohen, onetime Secretary of Defense under President Clinton wrote:

In a very real sense, America itself must embark on its own holy war – not one driven by hatred or fueled by blood but grounded in our commitment to freedom, tolerance and the rule of law and buttressed by our willingness to use all means available to defend these values.[79]

Holy war is collective violence in a sacred cause, carried out with all the solemnity of a ritual; it should not be confused with a “just war,” although the two do overlap in some degree. Cohen’s remarks indicate one of the striking ways in which religious language gestures toward secular violence in our time. For although the phrase holy war seems to invoke transcendentalism, it is here a secular reference to worldly power, to America’s right to use violence anywhere and at any time, overriding international law. It is a direct reference to its own super power, to its ability to override any item of law. The claim that its Global War on Terror is “holy” differs significantly from a medieval crusade. Unlike the crusades that sought to recover a sacred land from the infidel, today’s US war on terror seeks, unendingly, to export America’s secular anxieties abroad. But, arguably, as an expression of the US ability to use global violence for the sake of its “sacred” rights and duties, that war asserts a quasi-theological reason. I am not claiming that today’s militarism should be seen as a direct descendent of medieval attitudes, still less as Christianity in disguise. The language is plain in its use not its origin; although parts of its vocabulary are drawn from another time—and another form of life—it seeks to infuse passion into a very different war. Today, the war is conducted in the name of humanity, and it is secular law not theology that protects humanity.



The exercise of violence that is startlingly new, that breaks with so much of what has gone before, lies in the techniques for reconstructing human beings through genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, and through the marketing of copyrighted information by which robots, cyborgs, and genetically enhanced neo-humans can be made.[80] As Hannah Arendt once noted, all activities directed at making or remaking natural material involve an element of violence,[81] regardless of the maker’s benevolent motives. The basis of life is its DNA; DNA is essentially information; information is artificially reproducible and remakeable. This raises the general question: What are the limits of convertibility for humans—in other words, if there are limits to what constitutes the human what are they, and why, indeed, are there limits? If, however, there are no limits, how does this affect humanitarianism that is supposedly concerned to defend the sanctity of human life?

There are several other questions about the new conditions of humanitarian military action: How does the fact that the new inhabitants of our world (killer robots) can be industrially manufactured radically change our conception of what their production and destruction means to those who employ them and those who survive their violence?[82] (Drones are not autonomous weapons because they are controlled by humans.) If life is increasingly defined in terms of information, what is the difference between an autonomous self in war and an autonomous weapon? Do neo-humans who look like paleo-humans and act like them in hostilities—but with superior intelligence—have the right to life as autonomous selves, or do they, as “autonomous weapons,” only have the ability to kill? Would their destruction constitute a violation of the sanctity of life (since life is now essentially embodied information) or merely an economic loss? It is said that without the human quality of compassion they would be unable to follow the civilized rules of war (especially proportionality and necessity) that endanger civilians. But how effective are these rules for paleo-human warriors in the new definitions of life? Critics have argued that it would be difficult to determine who would be punishable for crimes of war committed by robots because it would be “unfair” to punish the manufacturers or programmers or commanders as opposed to the actual perpetrator, and punishing the killer robot would deprive victims of the satisfaction that retributive justice has finally been done.[83] To kill a “guilty” robot would simply be to punish a machine. But since lethal violence in modern war is made possible only through complicated mediations involving many hands and minds, why manufacturers, programmers, and commanders can’t all be held accountable together? In any case, neo-humans may be endowed with all the crucial qualities of the paleo-human: autonomy, intelligence, information, and will. What is it that makes them unsuitable for punishment? The answer that suggests itself lies in their inability to suffer: their lack of passion. The neo-human cannot be the object of retributive justice because he cannot feel pain. The ability to feel pain is a precondition not only for compassion but also for punishment.

Most critics of the new developments have been largely concerned with distinguishing the lawful use of violence from its unlawful use, and with liberal expressions of disquiet about the construction of robots as soldiers. Human killers are acceptable—indeed necessary—both as participants in just warfare (especially in military humanitarianism) and as violators of the laws of war, but robots are not. Is this a reflection of the deep-rootedness of the modern commitment to life as sacred deriving from theology? Perhaps the imminent prospect of autonomous weapons should prompt us to think more critically not only about the continual (and continually failed) efforts to “tame” collective violence and reduce human suffering but also about the contradictory character of humanitarianism as the painful redemption of humanity. The mutually subversive principles of information about life and autonomy of the subject (so “deeply anchored in our moral culture”) may not be sustainable together for much longer in our interdependent, capitalist world.


My thanks to the following friends for comments on earlier versions of this piece: Hussein Agrama, Gil Anidjar, Ayca Cubuckcu, Abou Farman, Charles Hirschkind, Mahmood Mamdani, Nate Roberts, Anne Stoler.


[1]  Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass., 1981) p. 394.

[2] However, as Uday Mehta has pointed out in his interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi’s political practice, violence used by the state in pursuit of reformist idealism in peace may not be as dramatically evident as war is, yet in both there is the destruction of human lives accompanied by a rhetoric of noble ends. Mehta sees Gandhi’s concept of non-violence (ahimsa) not simply as the principle of abstention from violence but as a sustained spiritual project: the care for the self that involves entering into the experience of violence as a precondition for willing abstention from it. In that way, says Mehta, he sought to break entirely with the Western tradition of thought about war (violence) and peace (the absence of violence) as absolute opposites. See Uday Singh Mehta “Gandhi and the Common Logic of War and Peace,” Raritan, Summer 2010.

[3] See Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2007.

[4] See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, New York: Viking Penguin, 2011.

[5] For an important account of the violence inflicted on young Africa-Americans before, during, and after their imprisonment, see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, New York: The New Press, 2010.

[6] See James Q. Whitman, Harsh Justice, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, and also his “What Happened to Tocqueville’s America?” Social Research, vol.74, no.2, 2007, p. 254.

[7] One might add to this difference from Europe another: the presence in the US of private prisons whose interests are represented in Congress by paid lobbyists who are able to influence legislation in a way that increases the scope of criminal behavior. That legislation increases the number of felons whose incarceration in the private prison system increases the latter’s profitability.

[8] See Aziz Rana’s The Two Faces of American Freedom, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), an impressive study that traces the imperial conquest of Indian territory (the appropriation of land as property), and more broadly, the shifting connections made, violently, between freedom (self-rule and equality among citizens) and unfreedom (the exclusion and subjection of alien peoples) in United States history.

[9] Some of the Enlightenment’s diversity is reflected in James Schmidt (ed.), What Is Enlightenment? Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1996.

[10] Michel Foucault, Folie et Déraison. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, Paris Gallimard, 1972, p. 381.

[11] The Earl of Shaftesbury, writing of what he calls unnatural affections, speaks of: “that unnatural and inhuman delight in beholding torments, and in viewing distress, and in viewing distress, calamity, blood, massacre and destruction, with a peculiar joy and pleasure.” Such passions, he says, are found among many – those who are uncivilized or those who, “in some degree, belong to such tempers as have thrown off that courteousness of behaviour which retains in us a just reverence of mankind, and prevents the growth of harshness and brutality.” These passions are therefore “unnatural” in the sense that they have not been disciplined by sentiments that lead men either to public or to private good. An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1904, p. 108.

[12] Thus Burke: “there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity; so that whether the misfortune is before our eyes, or whether they are turned back to it in history, it always touches with delight. This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness. The delight we have in such things, hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purposes, without our concurrence.” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, [1757] Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 43. In Burke’s vocabulary “delight” is not a synonym for “pleasure” but the name of a more complicated affect.

[13]  John Headley, The Europeanization of the World; On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy, Pronceton: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 2.

[14]  Richard Tuck, “Scepticism and toleration in the seventeenth century,” in Susan Mendus (ed.), Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[15] Thus Headley, p.115.

[16] Tuck, 33-5

[17] See Richard Tuck: Natural Rights Theories: Their origin and development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, and The Rights of War and Peace; Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[18] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

[19] See also Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.

[20] See Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love,” History, Vol. 65, No. 214, 1980.

[21] See John Headley, The Europeanization of the World; On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, for the suggestion that the modern concept of equality is simply a “secularization” of Christian notions.

[22] In his wonderful study, Beyond Church and State; Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) Matthew Scherer has used the trope of “conversion” to understand secularism.

[23] Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964) deals with this subject in splendid detail.

[24] Nathaniel Roberts has argued that conversion should not be seen as the “colonization of consciousness” because that presupposes an authentic “consciousness” always available to be colonized, although in fact consciousness is a discursive product of liberal history. He asks why conversion seems particularly problematic for liberal ethics and points in answer to its conception of the human subject as essentially characterized by moral autonomy and freedom. See Nathaniel Roberts, “Is conversion a ‘colonization’ of consciousness?” Anthropological Theory, 2012, 12: 271.

[25] See Lynn Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-century Britain and France, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, p. 3.

[26] Festa, p.7; see also Lynn Festa, “Sentimental Visions of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Studies,” Literature Compass vol. 6, no.1, 2009.

[27] See Rupa Viswanath, “The Emergence of Authenticity Talk and the Giving of Accounts: Conversion as Movement of the Soul in South India, ca. 1900,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 55, no.1, 2013. Viswanath argues that the emergence in South India of the so-called “modern self” (thought to be capable of narrativising its authentic convictions) needs to be set within the context of conversion in which the discourse of sincerity was required only of outcast agricultural laborers and not of upper caste Hindus.

[28] Feeling may be mobilized tactically to support particular causes (see Norman Fiering, “Irresistable Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 37, No. 2,).

[29] This in part is the argument of William M. Reddy’s “Sentimentalism and Its Erasure: The Role of Emotions in the Era of the French Revolution,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 1, 2000. Reddy proposes that “emotives” (expressions that affect internal emotions) are a third category between “performatives” (statements that bring something about legally or socially) and “constatives” (indicative statements) popularized in anthropology through a particular reading of J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words. But Austin’s book begins by expressing his dissatisfaction with the simple distinction between the latter two as alternatives and elaborates instead a more sophisticated conceptualization of what words do through simultaneous “locution,” “illocution,” and “perlocution.” Employing these three concepts critically – that is, through his notion of “emotives” – instead of remaining with the original constative/performative binary, would have allowed Reddy to highlight the fragile character of “rights” based on rational principles. The exercise of the citizen’s right in liberal democracies to elect his president is widely criticized for being deeply affected by highly emotional (“irrational”) media campaigns. But the right is no less of a right for that.

[30] For a brief discussion of Kant’s problem with making sympathy the basis of morality, see Samuel Moyn, “Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity,” History and Theory, 45, October 2006; see also Dabney Townsend, “From Shaftesbury to Kant: The Development of the Concept of Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 48, No. 2, 1987.

[31] See O.E.D. entry “Humanitarian.”

[32] See Louis Pierre Leroux, “Pierre Leroux’s Doctrine of Humanity,” The Fortnightly Review 11, no. 3, March 1, 1872. And on his connection of aesthetics to politics, see Warren Breckman’s interesting “Politics in a Symbolic Key: Pierre Leroux, Romantic Socialism, and the Schelling Affair,” Modern Intellectual History, vol. 2, no. 1, 2005.

[33] Thus in 2004 Médecins sans Frontières decided to leave Afghanistan and issued a bitter denunciation of U.S. strategy there, saying that it had worked in the country for almost a quarter of a century – right through the Taliban interregnum – and never encountered such danger from the warring sides. “The violence directed against humanitarian aid workers,” the statement reads, “has come in a context in which the U.S. backed coalition has consistently sought to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions. MSF denounces the coalition’s attempts to co-opt humanitarian aid and use it to ‘win hearts and minds.’ … Only recently…MSF publicly condemned the distribution of leaflets by the coalition forces in southern Afghanistan in which the population was informed that providing information about the Taliban and al-Qaeda was necessary if they wanted the delivery of aid to continue.” Whether these leaflets were intended as a threat or as a plea for assistance is difficult to determine. See

[34] Gary Bass, Freedom’s Battle: The origins of humanitarian intervention, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008, p. 379

[35] Bass, p. 6.

[36] Foucault saw in this the logic of racist violence: “racism makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological type relationship: ‘The more inferior species die out, the more abnormal individuals are eliminated, the fewer degenerates there will be in the species as a whole, and the more I – as species rather than individual – can live, the stronger I will be, the more vigorous I will be. I will be able to proliferate.’ The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer.” Society Must Be Defended, New York: Picador, 2003, p. 255.

[37] See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, especially Chapters Six, Seven and Eight.

[38] “The declaration originated in the Russian foreign office and was only reluctantly subscribed to by Sir Edward Grey. The French government saw to it that the originally proposed phrase, ‘crime against Christianity and civilization,’ was replaced by ‘crime against humanity and civilization,’ in order to spare the feelings of the Moslem population in the French colonies.” Ulrich Trumpener, 1968. Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1918, Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1968, 201, footnote 26.

[39] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 43, emphasis in original.

[40] In a striking thought, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that what modernization theorists celebrate as the universalizing of empathy (“putting oneself in the other person’s place”) Shakespeare calls “Iago,” that the idea shared by the abstract process of modernization and the theatrical figure is improvisation: “the ability both to capitalize on the unforeseen and to transform given materials into one’s own scenario.” Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 225.

[41] Colonel C. E. Callwell, Small Wars; Their principles and practice, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [London: HMSO, 1896].

[42] In his intriguing article “Le souverain, l’humanitaire et le terrorist” (vacarme, issue 34, 2005) Adi Ophir’s identifies the humanitarian and the terrorist as two new actors who challenge the sovereignty of states. But strictly speaking this applies only to the military humanitarian.

[43] Anne Orford, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 16.

[44] “Even trials in absentia,” writes Michael Byers, “can be subject to political pressure: in Brussels, an investigative prosecutor had to abandon an attempt to try Sharon last year after the Belgian government succumbed to Israeli and American pressure to modify the legislation on the basis of which the prosecution was taking place.” Michael Byers, “Alleged War Criminals,” London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 14, 22 July, 2004.

[45] “The United States has legislation that provides the president with the authority to use military force to secure the release of any American serviceman detained by the International Criminal Court, in the form of a statute popularly known as ‘The Hague Invasion Act’.” Byers, ibid.

[46] See Scott Veitch, Law and Irresponsibility: On the legitimation of human suffering, Oxford: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007 – especially chapter 3: “The laws of irresponsibility,” and chapter 4: “Complicity in organised irresponsibility.”

[47] Gil Anidjar’s article “The Meaning of Life” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2011) deals with the ambiguity of “life,” and it was this that provoked me to think further about its relevance for the argument of my essay.

[48] When and how people are emotionally affected by the perpetration of cruelties on helpless victims in distant places is a complicated matter. The scale of losses is obviously central. Thus there was no popular revulsion at the fact that American troops on a humanitarian mission in Somalia may have massacred up to 10,000 persons (including civilians) while losing only thirty-four soldiers. (Charles W. Maynes, “Relearning Intervention,” Foreign Policy, No. 98 1995, pp. 96 and 98.) The disaster inflicted on Iraqi civilians after the US invasion in 2003, retrospectively described by many of its supporters as “humanitarian,” has been even greater, and the expressions of horror in Euro-America very minor. On the other hand, the considerable American military losses in Vietnam, the fact of middle-class conscription, and the disastrous progress of that war were clearly critical in eventually making anti-Vietnam War protests effective. Contra Gary Bass, in liberal democracies most people are not inclined to exert sustained pressure on their government so long as they live in reasonably comfortable circumstances.

[49] In her excellent ethnographic research on humanitarian movements, anthropologist Annette Jensen underlines the emotional stance of those who are officially committed to making the case for military intervention to stop massacres. I cite a brief extract from her interviews: “Respondent: This morning as I was walking to the subway, listening to the BBC news, I heard there was a massive killing in Nigeria last night, like 500 civilians killed machetes, and burned … It was horrible, something like an explosion. And I was coming here and I was thinking, ‘OK we are watching Sudan and Burma, but this is really…like an explosive…you know, I don’t know, act of violence’. … And at the same moment, the very same moment that I was reading in the afternoon, Rwanda comes to my mind. Because the images… Interviewer: What kind of images? Respondent: Machetes, you know, like this brutal way of killing people, because I mean if you were using fire weapons. It’s horrible it’s the same, but I think it is so much more barbaric, because people … they have their machetes and … I cannot help picturing graphically the image of one person killing another, especially children I think that’s the part where I get more shocked. … Respondent: yeah..yeah.. I think it’s more, again like I said, it is more painful, you know. If somebody goes and cuts your arm and cuts your leg and you’re not dead yet…It’s a level of pain and a level of suffering and it is more…barbaric, I think. It is not like it justifies to…but there are different ways to kill somebody, you know.” (Annette Jansen, “‘We refuse to be bystanders!’ Humanitarian Activists and the Call for Mass Atrocity Interventions,” unpublished ms., December 2011.)

[50] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

[51] This is reflected in the final item of the list of “injuries and usurpations” attributed to George III in the Declaration of Independence (1776): “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

[52] See Edward Burns, Character; Acting and Being on the Pre-Modern Stage, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

[53] Paul Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty, Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, p. 182, n. 9.

[54] Kahn, p. 173.

[55] Didier Fassin, “Inequalities of lives, Hierarchies of Humanity,” in Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin, (ed.) In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 244.

[56] See note 31 above.

[57] Fassin, p. 247.

[58] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 268

[59] Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 74. My thanks to Gil Anidjar whose article on “life” (cited at note 32) directed me to Mayr, as well as to Pichot (see below, note 59).

[60] Histoire de la notion de vie, Paris: Gallimard, 1993, pp. 937 ff..

[61] A work that focuses on the political implications of the shift to “information” that merged biology with other sciences, thus going beyond Foucault’s idea of biopolitics, is Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, The Liberal Way of War, London and New York: Routledge, 2009. An anthropological study that covers some of this ground (and more) is Abouali Farman Farmaian’s “Secular Immortal,” (CUNY Graduate Center doctoral dissertation, 2012). I am grateful to both these works – and particularly to the latter – for having alerted me to the question of re-defining “human life” through modern developments in science and technology.

[62]  A very preliminary genealogy of the “sacred” is attempted in my Formations of the Secular, Stanford, 2003, pp. 30-7.

[63] For example, in Islamic religious discourse, harām is used to prohibit particular kinds of behavior – not because it has horrific consequences but simply because it is forbidden by God. Some transgressive behavior (harām) may evoke horror some may not. The verbal form harrama is used repeatedly in the Qur’an with the sense of “forbidding.” As in the injunction la taqtulū al-nafs allati harrama allāhu illa bi-l-haqq, “do not kill any person, [something] God has forbidden, except lawfully” 6:151. (The word harrama in this verse is often rendered into English as “that which God has made sacred.” I regard this a questionable translation because (a) it implies that the prohibition relates only to life that has been made “sacred” by God, and (b) it renders the verb harrama to mean “made sacred,” with all the overtones of that mysterious status, and not simply “he has forbidden.”) The verb harima not only means to be “forbidden” but also “to make something immune,” and “to deprive or bereave,” and “to withhold or deny”; hirmān, much used in contemporary political rhetoric, refers to socio-economic “deprivation.” The geographical center of Islam, the Ka’ba in Mecca, is called a haram, a space in which the shedding of blood and the carrying of arms – in fact, any display of violent behavior – are strictly forbidden. At another level, harām belongs to the ethical-legal-political tradition of the shari‘a, part of a five-fold evaluative scale ranging from “mandatory,” through “approved,” and “neutral,” to “disapproved” and “forbidden”; it does not therefore have a polar opposite in the way that “sacred” is contrasted with “profane.” My most general point is that the English word “sacred” together with its cognates (as well as equivalents in other major European languages) is rooted in a modern “secular” form of life, and has no parallel as a concept in pre-modern times.

[64] For example: “2009 New Jersey Code, TITLE 2C - THE NEW JERSEY CODE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, Section 2C:22, 1. a. A person commits a crime of the second degree if he: (1) Unlawfully disturbs, moves or conceals human remains; (2) Unlawfully desecrates, damages or destroys human remains; or (3) Commits an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, as defined in N.J.S.2C:14-1, upon human remains. 1. b. A person commits a crime of the third degree if he purposely or knowingly fails to dispose of human remains in a manner required by law. 1. c. As used in this act, "human remains" means the body of a deceased person or the dismembered part of a body of a living person but does not include cremated remains.”

[65], 1/12/12

[66] Remarks with Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, 1/12/12, via

[67] The proper treatment of corpses varies, of course, among different cultures: burial, burning (on a funeral pyre or in a modern incinerator), exposure to natural decay and to vultures (as in the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence). Members of each culture often regard the death customs of the others with contempt, loathing, or amusement.

[68] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, New York: Penguin Books, pp. 58-9. Ellsberg adds that NATO within Europe and the U.S. beyond it retain a first-use policy.

[69] International Court of Justice, Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996, Final Judgment, p. 44.

[70] On Israel’s nuclear policy see the ominously titled study, The Samson Option by Seymour Hersh, New York: Random House, 1991, especially the Epilogue.

[71] Even today the US arsenal contains 5,113 warheads, and yet little public attention is paid to this fact. The irrationality of this kind of violence, as having no one responsible for it, should be evident. Vigorous attempts, including threats of war, are being made by the United States today to prevent small countries from acquiring nuclear weapons – although the doctrine of nuclear deterrence maintains that the possession of such weapons by states that are at enmity with each other guarantees peace between them.

[72] Taylor, op. cit., p. 451.

[73] Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980, p. 9. Echoing Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, Kristeva writes that it is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes loathing but that which disturbs an identity, a system, an order: “Ce qui ne respecte pas les limites, les places, les règles. L’entre-deux, l’ambigu, le mixte. Le traître, le menteur, le criminel à bonne conscience, le violeur sans vergogne, le tueur qui prétend sauver…”  Op. cit., p. 12. On might suggest, however, that it is not the breaking of rules that is at issue but the spontaneous identification of a character as evil because he flouts what is regarded as sacred.

[74]  See H. E. J. Cowdrey, “Bishop Ermenfrid of Sion and the Penitential Ordinance following the Battle of Hastings,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. XX, No.2, October, 1969.

[75] This sense that the ambiguity of the sacred requires rites to approach it – on pain of death to the violator as well as to others – is the famous theme of Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its nature and function, London: Cohen and West, 1964.

[76] Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood, Chapter Three, translated by Conrad Greenia, (

[77] See, for example, John Blake, “How Obama's favorite theologian shaped his first year in office,” (

[78] Cited in David Brooks, "Obama, Gospel and Verse," New York Times, April 26, 2007.

[79] William S. Cohen, “American Holy War,” The Washington Post, September 12, 2001, p. A.29. Italics supplied.

[80] The social science literature on this subject is already very considerable. In Citizen Cyborg (Westview, 2004), for example, James Hughes writes enthusiastically of the new developments: “In the twenty-first century the convergence of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering will allow human beings to achieve things previously imagined only in science fiction. … We will merge with machines and machines will become more like humans.” (p. xii) People opposing this new trend Hughes labels contemptuously “bioLuddites,” those “rejecting liberal democracy, science and modernity.” (p. xiii) The only rational challenge of the scientific future, in his view, consists in ensuring that liberal democratic government provides all with an equitable distribution of access to the new developments. A far more thoughtful response to the implications of genetic engineering is Michael Sandel’s The Case against Perfection, Cambidge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[81] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin Books, 1977, p. 111.

[82] The production of killer robots is no longer science fiction. A campaign has recently been launched by a number of NGOs in the UK urging the government to strengthen its formal renunciation of the development and use of autonomous weapons. The US Defense Department has already declared it will not develop weapons in which there is “no human intervention in the loop.” Critics point out, however, that apart from practical problems (e.g., most weapons research carried out in the US is done in the private sector), the definition of critical terms (e.g., “human intervention”) remains unclear.

[83] Human Rights Watch, together with International Human Rights Clinic, has published a useful report entitled Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, 2012. I am grateful to Tom Porteous for providing me with a copy of this report.

  • Talal Asad