The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza by Eyal Weizman Verso Press, 2012, 208pp., $26.95
Violence is a basic fact of international relations. It is the beginning and end of the state system, and likely any global political system, should the current one ever be superseded. Undoubtedly, this system is full of deficiencies, blind spots, cruelties, and injustices. Some of these are arbitrary, and some are contingent on our specific global order. As this order developed, however, a legal and moral structure grew with it around a laudable objective: the regulation and limitation of interstate violence. With the recent decline of such violence, especially between the great powers, the focus of the international community has shifted to the regulation of the violence that states can inflict upon their own peoples. States no longer need to cross a border for their bad behavior to be deemed criminal. Taken together, these developments—most prominently in human rights, humanitarianism, and the laws of war—form a powerful legal and normative regime whose purpose is to constrict state behavior, especially at its most violent and destructive fringes.
Yet no matter how such a legal regime appears formally, it still reflects underlying conditions of inequality, power dynamics, structures of domination and control. As Rousseau said, speculating about the origins of inequality, “All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty, for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers.” According to this account, we inadvertently embrace what enslaves us.
These dynamics are at the heart of Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils. For Weizman, instead of regulating or limiting violence, international humanitarian law (that is, the laws of war) actually legitimates certain manifestations of it. This is due to the utilitarian logic that pervades our thinking about violence caused by states and their agents, reasoning that sees “the sphere of morality as a set of calculations aimed to approximate the optimum proportion between common goods and necessary evils.” According to Weizman, deeming certain evils “necessary” provides the conceptual cover for further acts of cruelty. What begins as a “pragmatic compromise” between two terrible choices becomes an acceptable logic in less than exceptional circumstances. The logic of the exception is widened; the infliction of suffering is made civilized and inevitable.
Weizman focuses largely on the concept of proportionality. His use of the term is rather elastic. On the one hand, it encompasses proportionality as it is understood in just war theory and the laws of war—that is, as a specific condition that must be satisfied, both in a state’s decision to go to war, and in its conduct during war. Military actions must be balanced with threats, with the perceived advantage a specific action would bring about, and with the number of civilian casualties it might cause. But Weizman is also concerned with a wider, more abstract understanding of proportionality: how this “balancing process” allows for systematic violence to occur, and how the process itself distracts us from the cruelties that are inflicted by its logic.
Thus, for Weizman, the concept of proportionality legitimates violence by sanctioning arrangements of domination and control (such as in Israel’s Occupied Territories) and by permitting a certain minimum number of civilian casualties during conflict or humanitarian emergencies in the name of some greater good. He is obviously discomfited by the idea that to prevent evil one must sometimes engage in it. Who isn’t? But acknowledging that a significant amount of hypocrisy or slippage is bound to occur when the strictures of moral philosophy meet the vulgarities of the political realm is one thing. Asserting that the guidelines themselves in fact drive such violence is a far bolder claim, and one that he never satisfactorily supports.
This is partly because Weizman attempts to accomplish too much in too little space. In under 150 pages, the book examines the malign consequences of humanitarian organizations’ response to famine in Ethiopia during the mid-1980’s; a small-scale model of a section of Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank and its effect on judicial decision-making; and the use of forensic architecture (assessing the social, legal, and ideological implications of physical structures) to reconstruct battle details by examining bombed-out buildings and ruins after the 2008–09 Gaza War. Additionally, Weizman includes a lengthy theoretical introduction incorporating philosophy, international affairs, critical theory, and architecture. Weizman’s use of architecture is the book’s most original contribution, and a reflection of his formal training in that field. Although his attempt to draw from a variety of fields is laudable, Weizman’s ambitious interdisciplinary approach more often leads to confusion than clarification.
The persistent use of pseudo-philosophy in the initial chapters is also partially to blame. In an instant, whole intellectual traditions are casually defenestrated. Weizman calls the concept of just war a “liberal canard” (putting “just war” in quotations) without any further elaboration about what exactly is liberal about just war theory (how can a tradition that stretches from Augustine to Michael Walzer easily be characterized as liberal or conservative?), or why it is essentially dishonest to argue that wars, reprehensible as they may be, can occasionally be considered just.
The writing also veers from the grating (“Gaza . . . is the proper noun for the horror of our humanitarian present”), to the banal (“the various political, theological, and philosophical uses of the lesser evil idiom may suggest that it meant different things to different people in different periods and situations”), to the onanistic (“to make oneself ungovernable, one must make oneself incalculable, immeasurable, uncountable”), to the absurd (“As a friend recently suggested, we ought to construct a monument to our present political culture . . . it should be made in the form of the digits 6-6-5 built of concrete blocks, and installed like the Hollywood sign on hillsides. . . . This number, one less than the number of the beast . . . might capture the essence of our humanitarian present obsessed with calculations . . . that seek to moderate . . . the evils that it has largely caused itself”).
The Least of All Possible Evils improves markedly when it moves away from such abstract terrain. In the book’s chapter on Ethiopia during its famine years (1983–85), Weizman investigates how humanitarian organizations came to realize that they had become actors within the conflict zones in which they operated, even inadvertently supporting criminal regimes. Through the testimony of Rony Brauman, the former president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who oversaw the organization’s operations in Ethiopia during the famine, Weizman shows how humanitarians ended up aiding the execrable Mengistu regime by setting up relief centers in the famine zone. The regime aimed to depopulate the arid north of the country and collectivize farming in the south, so they used the opportunity to forcibly transfer millions of (starving) civilians in the camps. An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 died as a result of the move.
That MSF could be considered an unknowing party to these crimes shook Brauman deeply. He began to reconsider the role of humanitarian work, shifting MSF away from the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) studious neutrality and toward a new principle of “bearing witness” in the face of atrocities. For Brauman, this meant speaking out about what it witnessed (which the ICRC did not do, for instance, during World War II, when it became aware of the Nazi extermination camps). It also meant refusing to participate in humanitarian zones where MSF had become ethically compromised. In response to MSF’s protest over the regime’s crimes, the Mengistu government expelled the organization from the country in 1985.
Weizman deftly captures the dilemma MSF and other humanitarian organizations face. In a situation like Ethiopia’s, should they simply tend to the immediate needs of the starving, or also factor in their long-term effect on the domestic political scene? What about the international geopolitical consequences? Humanitarians must consistently make these kinds of calculations, wherein the optimal choice is still deeply dissatisfying. Stay, and people die. Leave, and people die. All interventions ripple outward indefinitely. Both humanitarians and combatants must make choices about “the least of all possible evils.”
In this it seems odd that Weizman doesn’t engage more with Hannah Arendt’s theories about political violence. The book features precious little of her thought, even though her name is prominently displayed in its subtitle, and is given marquee status in the chapter on Ethiopia itself (“Arendt in Ethiopia”). Brauman refers to her in comparing MSF in Ethiopia to the Jewish Councils during World War II, since, according to Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem, the latter group’s “lesser evil” mentality led to its cooperation with the Nazis. Brauman also considered the Ethiopian regime a totalitarian state. Weizman takes a curiously uncritical approach to Brauman’s interpretation of Arendt in general, but it is particularly strange that Brauman’s comments on totalitarianism are left unquestioned. For example, one of Arendt’s key points in The Origins of Totalitarianism was just how historically contingent totalitarianism was, and also how radically it differed from “mere” murderous dictatorship or tyranny. One also wonders why, if Weizman were truly interested in Arendt’s rich oeuvre and its applicability to his analysis of “humanitarian violence,” he would entirely neglect her seminal work On Violence.
It’s probably for the best that Arendt disappears entirely from the final two chapters of the book, which deal with different aspects of the Israeli Occupation and the wider Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Weizman displays greater knowledge here. He shows how a case adjudicated by the Israeli High Court over the boundaries of Israel’s separation wall with the West Bank was altered by topographical models. These models forced the judges to confront the material dimensions of the Occupation and take into account—to balance in a “least of all possible evils” manner—the contending security concerns of the Israeli military and the agricultural needs of Palestinian villagers. For Weizman, these contested boundaries, and the differing borders advocated by the different legal parties, represent the wall’s essential incoherence.
Weizman also shows how calculations about proportionality guide Israeli policy in Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel (and less severely by Egypt) since Hamas took control of the Strip in June 2007. For instance, shortly after the blockade was effected, the Israeli military released directives regarding the threshold amount of electricity (the supply of which was controlled from within Israel), food, and medical supplies that would be allowed to enter Gaza on a weekly basis. The calculations were so specific as to establish the minimum caloric intake necessary to sustain every man, women, and child in Gaza at levels slightly above the UN’s definition of hunger. Foods were divided by type and potential intake calculated by the amount of each type of good entering the Strip over a given period. In this way, purportedly humanitarian concerns about the effects of the blockade, carried out according to legal codes and moral norms about the proportional conduct of a belligerent during times of conflict, actually served to clarify the outermost limits of suffering that could be legitimately inflicted upon a civilian population.
This situation is tragic, but Weizman’s target is misplaced. If not proportionality there would be another mechanism for domination and control, another inhumanity cloaked behind the language of sovereign compassion or cosmopolitan concern. The legal channel or ideology that is employed is secondary; the stain is deeper and more diffuse than that. If we are to bear down on the problem of the “lesser evil,” we will need greater clarity about the source of that evil. Without question, we need fewer Gazas, fewer Ethiopias, fewer Syrias. Most urgently, we need the courage to imagine a radically different political order, but one that stays tethered to certain bitter facts about the polis, and the rational animal that inhabits it. Unfortunately, Weizman’s book doesn’t take us there.