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Slavoj Žižek · Are we in a war_ Do we have an enemy__ Love Thy Neighbour · LRB 23 May 2002

Slavoj Žižek · Are we in a war_ Do we have an enemy__ Love Thy Neighbour · LRB 23 May 2002

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Slavoj Žižek · Are we in a war_ Do we have an enemy__ Love Thy Neighbour · LRB 23 May 2002
Slavoj Žižek · Are we in a war_ Do we have an enemy__ Love Thy Neighbour · LRB 23 May 2002

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 Are we in a war? Do we have an enemy?
Slavoj Žižek 
 When Donald Rumsfeld designated the imprisoned Taliban fighters ‘unlawful combatants’(as opposed to ‘regular’ prisoners of war), he did not simply mean that their criminal terroristactivity placed them outside the law: when an American citizen commits a crime, even oneas serious as murder, he remains a ‘lawful criminal’. The distinction between criminals andnon-criminals has no relation to that between ‘lawful’ citizens and the people referred to inFrance as the ‘Sans Papiers’. Perhaps the category of
homo sacer
, brought back into use by Giorgio Agamben in
 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
 (1998), is more usefulhere. It designated, in ancient Roman law, someone who could be killed with impunity and whose death had, for the same reason, no sacrificial value. Today, as a term denotingexclusion, it can be seen to apply not only to terrorists, but also to those who are on thereceiving end of humanitarian aid (Rwandans, Bosnians, Afghans), as well as to the SansPapiers in France and the inhabitants of the favelas in Brazil or the African Americanghettoes in the US.Concentration camps and humanitarian refugee camps are, paradoxically, the two faces,‘inhuman’ and ‘human’, of one sociological matrix. Asked about the German concentrationcamps in occupied Poland, ‘Concentration Camp’ Erhardt (in Lubitsch’s
To Be or Not to Be
)snaps back: ‘We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.’ A similar distinctionapplies to the Enron bankruptcy, which can be seen as an ironic comment on the notion of arisk society. Thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings were certainly exposedto a risk, but without having any real choice: what was risk to those in the know was blindfate to them. Those who did have a sense of the risks, the top managers, also had a chance tointervene in the situation, but chose instead to minimise the risk to themselves by cashing intheir stocks and options before the bankruptcy – actual risk s and choices were thus nicely distributed. In the risk society, in other words, some (the Enron managers) have the choices, while others (the employees) take the risks.The logic of
homo sacer
 is clearly discernible in the way the Western media report from theoccupied West Bank: when the Israeli Army, in what Israel itself describes as a ‘war’operation, attacks the Palestinian police and sets about systematically destroying thePalestinian infrastructure, Palestinian resistance is cited as proof that we are dealing withterrorists. This paradox is inscribed into the very notion of a ‘war on terror’ – a strange war in which the enemy is criminalised if he defends himself and returns fire with fire. Which brings
 
me back to the ‘unlawful combatant’, who is neither enemy soldier nor common criminal.The al-Qaida terrorists are not enemy soldiers, nor are they simple criminals – the USrejected out of hand any notion that the WTC attacks should be treated as apolitical criminalacts. In short, what is emerging in the guise of the Terrorist on whom war is declared is theunlawful combatant, the political Enemy excluded from the political arena.This is another aspect of the new global order: we no longer have wars in the old sense of aconflict between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (to do with the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons etc). Two types of conflict remain: struggles between groups of
homo sacer
 – ‘ethnic-religious conflicts’ which violate the rules of universal human rights, do not count as wars proper, and call for a ‘humanitarian pacifist’intervention on the part of the Western powers – and direct attacks on the US or otherrepresentatives of the new global order, in which case, again, we do not have wars proper, but merely ‘unlawful combatants’ resisting the forces of universal order. In this second case,one cannot even imagine a neutral humanitarian organisation like the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organising an exchange of prisoners and so on, because one sidein the conflict – the US-dominated global force – has already assumed the role of the RedCross, in that it does not perceive itself as one of the warring sides, but as a mediating agentof peace and global order, crushing rebellion and, simultaneously, providing humanitarianaid to the ‘local population’.This weird ‘coincidence of opposites’ reached its peak when, a few months ago, HaraldNesvik, a right-wing member of the Norwegian Parliament, proposed George W. Bush andTony Blair as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing their decisive role in the ‘war onterror’. Thus the Orwellian motto ‘War is Peace’ finally becomes reality, and military actionagainst the Taliban can be presented as a way to guarantee the safe delivery of humanitarianaid. We no longer have an opposition between war and humanitarian aid: the sameintervention can function at both levels simultaneously. The toppling of the Taliban regime ispresented as part of the strategy to help the Afghan people oppressed by the Taliban; as Tony Blair said, we may have to bomb the Taliban in order to secure food transportation anddistribution. Perhaps the ultimate image of the ‘local population’ as
homo sacer
 is that of the American war plane flying above Afghanistan: one can never be sure whether it will bedropping bombs or food parcels.This concept of
homo sacer
 allows us to understand the numerous calls to rethink the basicelements of contemporary notions of human dignity and freedom that have been put outsince 11 September. Exemplary here is Jonathan Alter’s
 Newsweek
 article ‘Time to Think about Torture’ (5 November 2001), with the ominous subheading: ‘It’s a new world, andsurvival may well require old techniques that seemed out of the question.’ After flirting withthe Israeli idea of legitimising physical and psychological torture in cases of extreme urgency (when we know a terrorist prisoner possesses information which may save hundreds of lives),and ‘neutral’ statements like ‘Some torture clearly works,’ it concludes:
 
 We can’t legalise torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as wecontinue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need tokeep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think abouttransferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical.Nobody said this was going to be pretty.The obscenity of such statements is blatant. First, why single out the WTC attack as justification? Have there not been more horrible crimes in other parts of the world in recent years? Secondly, what is new about this idea? The CIA has been instructing its Latin American and Third World military allies in the practice of torture for decades. Even the‘liberal’ argument cited by Alan Dershowitz is suspect: ‘I’m not in favour of torture, but if  you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.’ When, taking this line astep further, Dershowitz suggests that torture in the ‘ticking clock’ situation is not directed atthe prisoner’s rights as an accused person (the information obtained will not be used in thetrial against him, and the torture itself would not formally count as punishment), theunderlying premise is even more disturbing, implying as it does that one should be allowed totorture people not as part of a deserved punishment, but simply because they know something. Why not go further still and legalise the torture of prisoners of war who may have information which could save the lives of hundreds of our soldiers? If the choice is between Dershowitz’s liberal ‘honesty’ and old-fashioned ‘hypocrisy’, we’d be better off sticking with ‘hypocrisy’. I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted withthe proverbial ‘prisoner who knows’, whose words can save thousands, I might decide infavour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given theunavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, inthe very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do weretain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done.In short, every authentic liberal should see these debates, these calls to ‘keep an open mind’,as a sign that the terrorists are winning. And, in a way, essays like Alter’s, which do notopenly advocate torture, but just introduce it as a legitimate topic of debate, are even moredangerous than explicit endorsements. At this moment at least, explicitly endorsing it would be rejected as too shocking, but the mere introduction of torture as a legitimate topic allowsus to court the idea while retaining a clear conscience. (‘Of course I am against torture, but who is hurt if we just discuss it?’) Admitting torture as a topic of debate changes the entirefield, while outright advocacy remains merely idiosyncratic. The idea that, once we let thegenie out of the bottle, torture can be kept within ‘reasonable’ bounds, is the worst liberalillusion, if only because the ‘ticking clock’ example is deceptive: in the vast majority of casestorture is not done in order to resolve a ‘ticking clock’ situation, but for quite different reasons(to punish an enemy or to break him down psychologically, to terrorise a population etc). Any consistent ethical stance has to reject such pragmatic-utilitarian reasoning. Here’s a

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