Talal Asad: Thinking about “Just War”
Talal Asad*, The Huffington Post, July 17, 2007
Since September 11, many people have remarked on the oddity of the phrase “the war on terror” that quickly dominated public discourse: War, they pointed out, is a formal relation of hostilities between sovereign states and not between a state and an abstraction indicating a diffuse international network of militants. The Bush regime was mocked for making an absurd — and dangerous — confusion. The assumption of most of these critics, however, is that because there is a legal definition of war there is also a moral distinction between warfare (a state function) and terrorism (the disruptive activity of ruthless individuals). This assumption underlies a tradition of thinking about “just war.” In contrast, the very phrase “just terrorism” appears to us as an impossible contradiction. It is true that “terror” first made its political appearance in the self-description of the French Jacobin state in pursuit of revolutionary justice, but that usage is now discontinued because the idea of “revolutionary justice” is morally discredited.
In my recent book On Suicide Bombing, I examine some of the arguments produced recently to distinguish between the moral constraints to which war is (or can be) subjected on the one hand, and the absolute evil of terrorism, and especially suicide terrorism, on the other. I propose that if the peculiar evil of terrorism is not only the killing of innocent people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the deliberate violation of private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces, the endless coerciveness of precaution, then — so it seems to me — war, whether just or not, does that too. The brutality of a state army and of a terrorist group have much in common, and although in a formal sense state armies are subject to international humanitarian law this does not constitute as much of an obstacle to deliberate cruelty as might appear at first sight. We have learnt as much in the recent conduct of Western armies of occupation.
It is often claimed that particular wars may be unjustly declared, that wars may sometimes use immoral means and be concluded in a vindictive way but that in itself war — even brutal war — is sometimes necessary. “Necessity” makes us look for ways of justifying it. Terrorism, on the other hand, is always and in principle evil — even though terrorists also claim that the atrocities they commit are sometimes necessary. Interpreting the motives of fighters is a tricky business but it is central to arguments about the distinction between the conduct of state armies and that of non-state gangs. Thus it is argued that the motives of military commanders are complex: they kill non-combatants but wouldn’t if they didn’t have to. Yet couldn’t the same be said of the terrorist whose killing of civilians is at once deliberate and coerced? He has reached the limit, he has no other option left — or so he claims, when he says that in order to try to defend his people’s freedom he must carry out immoral killings. If he kills enough civilians (so he reasons) perhaps those who are politically responsible will respond in the desired way.
Nevertheless, I suggest that the response of horror by Western audiences at incidents of suicide terrorism is often genuine (sometimes it is feigned) and it is this that gives us a clue to its uniqueness. In my exploration of horror as a common reaction to suicide and especially to suicide bombing, I turn first to anthropological writing to elaborate the notion that horror has to do with the collapse of social and personal identity and thus with the dissolution of form itself, and then I draw on some aspects of Christian theology to discuss the crucifixion as an indirect suicide whose horror is transmuted into the project of redeeming universal humanity. Liberalism too, in its secular political culture, combines cruelty and compassion.
The sudden destruction to which this horror responds is thus connected, in my view, to the place of violence in liberal thought. Industrial capitalism is the volatile condition in which Western liberties have been fought for, defended and violently extended around the world. The violent freedoms of industrial capitalism can be said to have constituted progressive political life as the space of an earthly permanence that can compensate for the death of the past. In liberal political thought the modern sovereign state has an absolute right to defend itself, a defense that may — as the International Court of Justice has held — legitimately involve the use of nuclear weapons. Hence suicidal war with incalculable global consequences exists in the liberal imagination as a legitimate form of self-defense.
This leads me to the thought that the suicide bomber belongs in an important sense to a liberal tradition of armed conflict for the establishment or defense of a national community: To save the nation (or to found its state) in confronting a dangerous enemy, it may be necessary to act without being bound by ordinary moral constraints. To recognize that there are moral absolutes and at the same time to agree that sometimes they must be set aside is a well-known contradiction central to liberalism.
So I return to the question: Why do Westerners express horror at suicide terrorism? What is so special about it? In my answer I offer several reasons each of which points to identity being destroyed, a process felt more acutely by Europeans when they learn that Europeans are killed by non-Europeans — because that is how they have learnt to invest an aspect of their identity as “humans” — but nevertheless felt genuinely.
Here, in sum, is my answer. First, an unexpected suicide is always shocking, especially so when it also occurs in public, and when it involves the shattering of other human bodies and their belongings, a sudden disruption of the patterns of everyday life, a violence in which death is unregulated by the nation state. Warfare, of course, is an even greater violation of civilian “innocence,” but ideas have sedimented in us so that we regard war in principle as legitimate even when civilians are killed — in principle deaths in war (however horrible) are necessary for the defense of “our form of life.”
The second reason is that crime and punishment, loss and restitution, are impossible to separate when the act of killing is also the act that removes the killer beyond justice. Since that separation is essential to the functioning of modern law on which liberal identities — and freedoms — depend, deaths in suicide operations are especially intolerable.
Third, there are the tensions that typically hold modern subjectivity together: between individual autonomy and collective obedience to the law, between reverence for human life and its legitimate destruction, between the promise of immortality through political community and the inexorability of decay and death in individual life. These tensions are necessary to the liberal democratic state, the sovereign representative of a social body, but they threaten to breakdown completely when a sudden suicide operation takes place publicly and when its politics is seen not to spell redemption but mutual disaster.
Finally, I suggest the possibility that a highly emotional thought may impose itself on witnesses belonging to the secular Judeo-Christian tradition: the thought that the meaning of life is death and only death, that it is not death that is contingent but life. Catastrophic and brutal death could therefore be, as the crucifixion taught believing Christians, an occasion of love for all the dead, but for reasons I have just enumerated above this is impossible on the occasion of a suicide bombing.
*Talal Asad is a distinguished anthropologist at Graduate Center, City University of New York. He can be reached at: email@example.com
He is interested in the phenomenon of religion (and secularism) as an integral part of modernity, and especially in the religious revival in the Middle East. Connected with this is his interest in the links between religious and secular notions of pain and cruelty, and therefore with the modern discourse of Human Rights. Using a genealogical method developed by Friedrich Nietzsche and made prominent by Michel Foucault, Asad “complicates terms of comparison that many anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists receive as the unexamined background of thinking, judgment, and action as such. By doing so, he creates clearings, opening new possibilities for communication, connection, and creative invention where opposition or studied indifference prevailed”.
Read an interview with Talal Asad: Modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions
Watch the video of the Stanford Presidential Lecture on: “Thinking About Blasphemy and Secular Criticism”
Talal Asad talks about his new book On Suicide Bombing, listen to PodCast.
Read the Introduction of On Suicide Bombing.
No comments yet.