We are all Homo Sacer Now?
I’m going to spend some time thinking through both the Freedom Flotilla and what it means, but not only because what happened on Monday was a huge, gigantic deal. I’ve been reading Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, as the first of the many Egyptian / Islamic world novels I hope to get through this simmer (working mostly from this list, and also this one; either Elias Khoury‘s Gate of the Sun or T.E.’s Seven Pillars is next if you want to join me), as a specific means of bringing my literary brain closer to my political one, a version of the task which Rohan (appropriately) was just talking about setting for herself here. Summer is a good time for most academics who want to think about how to live as readers, instead of building books into a wall against the world. Which is, in a delightful symmetry, more or less what In the Eye of the Sun seems to be about, though I’m enjoying it to much to have read more than the first 300 pages.
The first thing to think about, it seems to me, is the Israeli argument that those boats deserved whatever they got because they were seeking confrontation, the assertion that since the activists on the Freedom Flotilla had political intentions — as they manifestly did have — they became, for that reason, legitimate targets of the kind of military force they received. We’re seeing this everywhere, but, for example, in the first line of this NYT editorial — “The supporters of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla had more than humanitarian intentions” — and this Jeffrey Goldberg column — “these ships were not on a humanitarian mission, but a political mission, one meant to lend support to Hamas…” — we see the same rhetorical insistence that politics and humanitarianism are different, and the strong implication that the former cancels out the latter.
In practice, of course, the latter is often a categorically depoliticized operation; James Ferguson called development work an “Anti-politics machine,” and it’s one of the single most important conceptual tools I’ve found for making sense of a great deal of what happens in the world. But this, it seems to me, is an mutation of that kind of thinking: less a humanitarianism defined as the exclusion of politics than the implication that engaging in politics deprives you of your rights as a humanity. After all, that Jeffrey Goldberg column gets to the point about “politics != humanitarianism” only after asserting that he’s more or less glad to see those people die:
…there is no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat; the video of those peace-seeking peace activists beating on the paintball commandos with metal bars pretty much canceled out whatever feelings of sympathy Israelis might have otherwise felt. Plus, most Israelis are aware, unlike much of the rest of the world, that these ships were not on a humanitarian mission, but a political mission, one meant to lend support to Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, so you might have to excuse Israelis for not sympathizing overly much.
To cut through the euphemism, he’s saying that citizens of the state which killed them don’t need to feel pain for their deaths or sympathy for the dead because politics divides them. As it certainly does. But parse that sentence again: he’s not saying the deaths were necessary or justifiable — indeed, the rest of the column is quite clear that they were neither — but something else: he’s saying that however stupid or counterproductive the actions might have been, the actual blood on the hands of the Israeli state is not, per se, something Israelis need to worry about. And that, it seems to me, is far more monstrous and troubling than simply arguing that the deaths would have been justifiable. In certain circumstances, violence can be legitimized; in certain circumstances, the use of state force might be a lesser evil that can prevent a greater one. But even if you can come up with a rationale for that use of violence, something to excuse and legitimize the accompanying destruction, the calculus is clear; some kind of ends has to justify the means. But if you don’t even accept that the means are, themselves, undesirable, then you don’t need a legitimizing end and killing then becomes a morally neutral operation. And that’s what he’s saying: even though killing the activists on the Freedom Flotilla was stupid and unnecessary, the deaths themselves are not what “we” regret. As political opponents, their deaths mean nothing to us; only our people matter.
Think through what comes with that. We have long been accustomed to the fact that Palestinian deaths mean as little to Israel as “terrorist” deaths mean to the US. But something which was only latent starts to emerge when the “our political opponents might as well die” line of thought dovetails with the “Israel against the world” siege mentality that the ultra-hawks ruling that country seem to have to a man. Because as Israel’s stance takes it farther and farther away from anything that could be characterized as adherence to international law, as they become more and more politically isolated from the rest of the world, the category of people they don’t have to consider human becomes massively larger. And a country that thinks it doesn’t need allies is dangerous. One of the most telling aspects of the whole clusterfuck, in fact, is that the IDF could have just waited until the boat was out of international waters to board it, since the flotilla was headed straight for a place where Israel would have had something resembling legal jurisdiction. The fact that they didn’t, that they flouted international law (and committed what Turkey — their only biggest ally in the middle East — is right to consider an act of war) for no apparent reason, is the scary thing. It suggests that they weren’t just trying to evade the law to achieve some end, or kill for a particular purpose. It suggests that they were trying to evade the law as an end in and of itself, to establish their right to kill whoever they wanted wherever they wanted, as the very point of the exercise. And since a country that ignores international law makes itself the enemy of the international community by definition, what does that make the rest of the world?
Update: Now that I’m looking for it, I find this kind of rhetoric everywhere;
George Packer’s opening line, for instance, in a column that seems critical, explicitly makes human life a secondary consideration to what is good for Israel: “The Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.” I don’t think this is just rhetoric; this is how they think. Human life is far less important than the well being of Israel, which means killing people for political gain would make sense; what really bothers people about this event (and why they’re willing to be critical) is that killing these people turns out to be bad for Israel.