Violence : Richard Bernstein

One of the most nefarious arguments used by the Bush administration to justify the Iraqi war after 9/11 was that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring about the spread of flourishing democracy in the Middle East. Liberation is a necessary but never sufficient condition to bring about the concrete realization of public freedom. But if we follow the logic of Arendt’s argument then violence—physical killing—may be the condition for bringing about the realization of nonviolent power and tangible public freedom. Indeed this is the argument that she developed to justify the creation of an international Jewish army to fight Hitler. Employing the logic of Arendt’s own justification, we can say Fanon—addressing the “exceptional circumstances” of colonial violence in Africa—was developing an argument to justify the necessity of armed struggle in order to overthrow colonialism and create the conditions for free self-determination of the indigenous populations.

I do not want to suggest that the views of Arendt and Fanon on the relation of nonviolence and violence are fully compatible. I see them as standing in a healthy tension with each other. There are passages in The Wretched of the Earth—especially when taken out of context—that appear to celebrate the “creative” power of violence. And here I think that Arendt’s warnings and skepticism about the creative power of violence are appropriate. But on the other hand, Fanon is arguing that given the structure and dynamics of colonial violence in Africa, armed revolutionary struggle is required to put an end to colonial violence.

For all the differences among Benjamin, Arendt, Butler, Critchley, and Fanon, there is something that they share in common. No matter how strong one’s ethical and political commitment to nonviolence and no matter how effective nonviolent techniques and strategies may prove to be, one cannot rule out the real possibility of exceptional circumstances in which violence is permitted and justified. They present a serious challenge to those who want to claim that there is an absolute and universal obligation never to engage in any form of violence. However noble and laudable such an absolute prohibition may seem, we have to face up to the fact that there are real life situations in which such a purist attitude can lead to even greater violence. Such principled nonviolence by individuals and groups protesting Hitler would have led to greater unrestrained violence on the part of the Nazis.

But now we have to face the really tough issue. Can we specify the conditions or even the guidelines that state the conditions when violence can be justified? I have already indicated my skepticism about the appeal to self-defense. We have seen recently how even on an individual level—in one-to-one killing—how easy it is to stretch and abuse the appeal to self-defense. George Zimmerman, who killed the unarmed Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, pleaded self-defense by appealing to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Indeed, in recent debates about gun control in the United States, there are those who advocate that the “solution” to this problem of gratuitous violence is to provide everyone with guns to defend themselves.

But the issue becomes even more complex and dubious in a political context. It has become increasingly common to justify “preventive” wars and violent interventions as acts of national self-defense. This, of course, is one of the frightening aspects of the “justification” of killing anyone in any place that someone takes to be an “imminent” threat to the United States or its “interests.”

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