Violence : Richard Bernstein

Arendt was no pacifist but she praised the use of nonviolent resistance. She thought that in the head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. She admired Gandhi, but wrote:

If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.11

Indeed she even singled out one of few exceptional examples of the “success” of nonviolent resistance during the Second World War. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, when discussing the deportation of Jews from Western Europe, she points to Denmark as an exemplar of the effectiveness of nonviolent protests. She tells us that one is tempted to recommend the story of what the Danes did

as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.12

She is referring to the way in which the Danes not only refused to cooperate with the Nazi attempt to round up and deport their Jewish population to concentration and extermination camps, but actually warned the Jews to go into hiding and then organized an evacuation campaign by fishing boats where the Jews were transported to Sweden where they were safe from the clutches of the Nazis.

Arendt, like Benjamin, also thinks that violence can be justified in exceptional circumstances, although she never thematizes this subject—she never attempted to specify the conditions when violence—physical killing—can be justified. Her remarks are all too brief and sketchy:

Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate. Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future. No one questions the use of violence in self-defense, because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means is immediate.13

Shortly I want to challenge Arendt’s claim that “no one questions the use of violence in self-defense.” What Arendt ignores (or at least does not adequately address)—and in a different way the same can be said about Benjamin—is the abuse of the appeal to self-defense to justify violence. Of course, there are clear examples (hypothetical and real) where the self-defense justification makes perfect sense. If somebody confronts me and has the clear intent to kill me, then I am certainly justified in killing him first. But appeals to “self-defense” justifications have been and continue to be abused as a justification for all sorts of killing—especially in a political context.

Clearly something like this defense is being used to justify the United States drone policy. But before turning explicitly to this issue, I want to indicate how Arendt herself developed an argument to justify the use of physical violence in what she took to be “exceptional circumstances.” Soon after Arendt arrived in the United States—before the U.S. entered the Second World War—she passionately called for the creation of an international Jewish army to fight Hitler . Indeed, she defended this as “the beginning of a Jewish politics” in which the Jewish people would fight for their freedom. In one of her first articles in the German-Jewish weekly, Aufbau (dated November 14, 1941), she called for a Jewish army drawn from volunteers all over the world to fight the Nazis “in Jewish battle formations under a Jewish flag.”14 The creation of such an army, she argued, is essential for the struggle for the freedom of the Jewish people. In this instance she had no doubts about the justification of violence to defeat Hitler.

11. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 53.

12. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 171.

13. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 52.

14. Hannah Arendt, “The Jewish War That Isn’t Happening: Articles from Aufbau.” in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 137.

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