Inhumanly right? Violence and the human rights discourse

Only the dead have seen the end of the war.
–    G. Santayana

There is a legend of a Jewish rabbi called Judah Loew of Prague. He lived in an age when Jews suffered from anti-Semitic violence, discrimination and even pogroms.  He eagerly wanted to defend his people and hence created the ultimate weapon of defense: a golem. A figure made out of clay and brought alive by pronouncing the names of God over the lifeless clay. The golem lived and struck the attackers swiftly. Alas, the rabbi did not control his golem as he had planned. Eventually it destroyed anti-Semite and Jew alike. The Jews so eager on being treated equally found equality only in death.

igolem0001p1It is not hard to notice that the downtrodden of today seem to have found an equally powerful weapon in their search for liberation. Almost every kind of illegitimate violence is contested on behalf of human rights. The human rights discourse has become hegemonic in NGO’s, resistance movements and even US foreign policy. One could almost think that human rights are inhumanly right. Their moral worth seems to be elevated above any political standard. The only questions still open seem to be whether human rights are universal or inherently western and the related enigma whom they serve. Are human rights western tools to homogenize non-western cultural practices or not? This criticism however is only directed towards the use of human rights and who is using it. In themselves they are portrayed as neutral tools in the hands of either evil or good intentioned Westerners. There is no debate about the tools themselves, only about who is using them. Have we reached the one and fundamental truth of politics, or should our methodical skepticism  (in the spirit of Descartes) run deeper? For instance, when the United States defended the Iraq invasion by claiming to protect women’s rights , the main critique was that this was just an excuse for an attack with completely different objectives. The critical focus was entirely on the tool-user (the United States), but never on the tool (women’s rights). Is framing women’s suffering in the mold of rights really on the only possibility? Of course not. Is it the best possibility? Nobody knows, nobody has ever asked that question. Maybe human rights are a golem. In the beginning they fend off the aggressor, but in the end they create a situation in which anyone becomes a target for elimination.

Legitimate violence: evil is among us

Nowadays human rights are used to argue both for and against state violence. They can defend humanitarian wars or condemn dictatorial ferocity. How was state violence then legitimated before the advent of human rights? Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian strategist, once wrote: “War is the continuation of politics through other means.” The normal situation is the political; war is the exception when normal politics no longer suffices. In war the political opponent becomes a military enemy. This continuum necessitated that the enemy was still recognized as a political subject. That is why a modern war could only be fought between states that legally recognized each other as legitimate states. As a result, modern war was highly organized. A war was fought between armies of soldiers wearing uniforms on a battlefield. Civilians were mostly left untouched.

The modern art of war Clausewitz described has been surpassed. One only has to look at the news to know that war is no longer a regulated confrontation of uniformed armies of states on a battlefield. Today’s wars are fought in cities (Homs, Damascus, Beirut, etc.) and mountains (the Bora Bora mountains of Afghanistan). The nation-state has lost its former glory. Instead the combatants are international organizations (the UN’s blue-helmets or Al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers) or local groups (the revolutionaries of Syria). Most importantly, the distinction between soldier and citizen has faded in order to give rise to the figure of the partisan, as Carl Schmitt called him. The partisan wears no uniform, mixes in the crowd and attacks when he is least expected.

How is state violence legitimated today? The political distinction between friend and enemy pertained to the modern art of war. Human rights do not simply mark a particular nation as an enemy to be conquered. Instead they invoke moral grounds. A humanitarian war is justified when it answers to human rights violations. The enemy is no longer simply an enemy, but evil.  By, for instance, violating the rights of its citizens, this state has performed an evil deed and has to be punished. The obligation then rests on the rest of humanity to punish this state, through war if necessary. But, as Carl Schmitt already knew:” whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.” When humanity as such is attacked, then the enemy becomes inhuman. He is a criminal to be found ‘dead or alive’. The human rights discourse criminalizes the enemy by grounding its rectitude in morality. The other is not simply a recognized enemy, but an inhuman manifestation of evil.

Terrorism à la carte: the backlash effect of the human rights discourse

Human rights legitimate violence through morality thereby making the enemy evil. He is a crime against humanity. As a result, the humanitarian just war has a tendency to become even more violent than the modern war Clausewitz wrote about. The enemy should not just be conquered, but exterminated. He is a threat to humanity as such and security can only be achieved by eliminating all risks.

newspaper-with-terrorism-headlineWho is the absolute enemy of humanity today? Morality tends to answer this question ambiguously. History is frequently written from the standpoint of the victors. Why is Radovan Karadzic convicted by the International Criminal Court of The Hague, but not Tony Blair? Another British politician, Winston Churchill, poignantly provided an answer in the form of a fable. In a zoo the animals agreed to disarm. The discussion was predictable. The rhinoceros wanted to ban the use of teeth and claws, but argued that horns were a necessary defense weapon. The tiger argued for the opposite. The bear proposed all conflicts should be ended with a big hug. The turkey disagreed. Everyone judges his own actions to be moral and the weapons of his enemy as immoral. The United States call Al-Qaeda terrorists, but think of Guantanamo as a necessary defense. Al-Qaeda argues against US imperialism, but thinks suicide bombings are justified violence. The one’s terrorist is the other’s freedom fighter. That Al-Qaeda is the criminal and not the United States simply depends on the fact that the United States has more power.

There is however something distinctive about terrorism that makes it the most fitted candidate for criminalization. It is an abstract concept that has no particular space. The terrorist can be anywhere: at the airport, on the bus, on the Internet, etc. The terrorist can be anyone. He can attack at any moment. This is demonstrated by the ‘terrorist alert’ the United States issued in August this year. It simply said that there is a higher risk of terrorist attack, but no one knows where or when. Therefore the war is everywhere and at all times. We have got a foretaste of this during the Cold War Era. The ‘communist danger’ was in fact double. On the one hand, it was directed against a number of recognized nation-states (the Soviet-Union being the most important). This enmity remained in the modern realm of contained enmity. On the other hand, the communist spy could be infiltrated in Western society and hence everyone could be an enemy. The anticommunist paranoia of the McCarthy-era was an omen of the War on Terror to come.

Politics is war through other means, not the other way around . The terrorist threat is always everywhere and therefore one has to be permanently prepared for attack. For Clausewitz, the battlefield could still be linked to a particular place and time (e.g. Waterloo 1815). Now the battlefield is everywhere. The enemy could be the person sitting next to you on the bus .

The human rights discourse makes the enemy into an axis of evil to be exterminated. Violence is legitimated through moral instead of political reasoning. Instead of eliminating violence from the world (as was intended), human rights multiply violent conflicts beyond necessity. By labeling the enemy as someone who violates human rights and commits crimes against humanity, the whole of humanity is obliged to act. In modernity the enemy was identifiable and war could therefore end in either victory or defeat. Today the enemy is everywhere and the end of the war is unsure. When will the last terrorist be caught? If radical Islamists were not criminalized and demonized, there was a possibility of settling the conflict between secular and rich Western countries and the religious impoverished Middle East through antagonist practices. Now this is impossible, since we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

My precious golem

We started this article with the story of rabbi Judah Loew and the golem. The latter should have been a defense weapon of the oppressed Jews, but instead started murdering both anti-Semites and Jews. The story demonstrated that even the most effective and justified defense weapon can have a backlash effect. It showed that the monstrosity of war is that all violence (even in the name of human rights) is potentially limitless. Human rights were devised to defend the downtrodden, but instead they have created a global permanent state of war where everyone is always already victim and/or terrorist.

There is however another side to the story. In the story the golem did not want to kill. Instead he searched to love and be loved. He even showed affection for the rabbi’s daughter, but was met with horror and disgust. The monster had a rich emotional capacity, but the humans were emotional cripples. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, on whose reading of the golem-story I base my interpretation, therefore conclude:” Perhaps what monsters like the golem are trying to teach us, whispering secretly under the din of our global battlefield, is a lesson about the monstrosity of war and our possible redemption through love.”

Further reading

A. Negri & M. Hardt, Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire.
C. Schmitt, Theory of the partisan.
C. von Clausewitz, On war.


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