Violence : Richard Bernstein

Thomas Bangsted / Cape Wrath
Thomas Bangsted / Cape Wrath

Violence : Richard Bernstein

There is a disturbing paradox about violence. We are overwhelmed by talk and images of violence, and there is now a vast literature about the different types, ranging from child abuse, domestic violence, rape, serial murder, suicide bombing to the use of the new sophisticated robotics and drones as weapons for killing. The paradox is that although (or perhaps because) there is so much discussion and literature dealing with different types and aspects of violence, there is enormous confusion about what we mean by violence. I want to limit myself to one crucial dimension of violence—the question of the justification for the use of physical violence in political situations—the killing or inflicting physical bodily harm on human beings.

The issue has recently flared up in public discussion with the release of the White Paper prepared by the Department of Justice that “sets forth the legal framework for considering the circumstances in which the U.S. government could use lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or associated force of al-Qa’ida.”1 In short, this White Paper is intended as a justification for the killing of any American in any foreign country who is judged to be “a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force.”2 The more closely one studies this document the more disturbing it is—not only because of what it explicitly says but because of what it doesn’t say.3 Who precisely draws up these killing lists? Who determines the evidence for claiming that an individual is a “senior operational leader” or that there is an imminent threat? The document even involves some sophistical discussion of the very meaning of an “imminent” threat. We are told:

[T]he condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent threat’ of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.4

What checks or constraints are there in making such decisions? Who is responsible when innocent civilians are killed in a drone attack? And what about what is unsaid? Are other countries “entitled” to conduct a similar policy? Can such a policy also be applied to American citizens living in the United States? There are many legal, constitutional, political, and ethical issues that need to be addressed. What I want to focus on is the structure or the “logic” of the argument to justify this form of violence. For ultimately it takes the form of a “self-defense” argument—that we (that is, the United States) are justified in killing individuals if it is an act of self-defense, an act that is presumably required in order to prevent an “enemy” from attacking “U.S. persons and interests.”

The self-defense justification for the use of violence (killing) has a long and complex history. But in this paper I want to focus on the way this issue has been discussed by three of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century who have addressed the question of violence: Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Frantz Fanon.

Walter Benjamin’s brief, cryptic, and elusive essay “Critique of Violence,” originally published in 1921, has been one of the most widely discussed and interpreted essays on violence. At a crucial stage in this essay Benjamin introduces the distinction between divine violence and mythic violence. The mythic manifestation of violence turns out to be identical with all legal violence. And it is the task of divine violence to destroy mythic violence: “If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying.”5 Mythic violence is bloody but divine violence “is lethal without spilling blood.”

1. Department of Justice White Paper, 2013, 1. (Editor’s Note: While the document was released in 2013, it dates to 2011).

2. Department of Justice White Paper, 2013, 1.

3. This Department of Justice White Paper discovered by NBC News, and which is now on the internet, is presumably a summary of legal documents that are still classified.

4. Department of Justice White Paper, 7.

5. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 249.

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