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  • On the Ruins of Ruins: Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils
  • Melissa M. Ptacek (bio)
Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. London and New York: Verso, 2011. $26.95 (cloth). 208 pp. ISBN: 9781844676477.

In remarks before the National Foreign Policy Conference for Leaders of Nongovernmental Organizations, held in the month following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State and a highly respected former Army general, characterized the relationship of NGOs to the US government as that of “a force multiplier for us,…an important part of our combat team.” The tone of the conference was that of collaboration between political and military agencies of the US government and civil society, a collaboration that Powell’s remarks underscored, to the discomfort of those members of the NGO community in attendance who saw their role as mitigating the horrors of war, rather than enabling and amplifying them.

Eyal Weizman cites Powell’s remarks, among others, in his The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. As Weizman documents, the “growing proximity between human rights organizations and the militaries of Western states, Israel’s included,” includes “a shared language, sometimes overlapping aims and a fluid exchange of personnel” (102). A single order of violence, Weizman argues, embraces the soldier and the humanitarian, along with the forensic analyst, in that “the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence” (3). The “humanitarian present” is the term Weizman borrows from Lisa Hajjar to describe this contemporary situation of “collusion,” however well-intentioned and however reluctant it may at times be, between human rights and humanitarian organizations and international humanitarian law (IHL), on the one hand, and political and military powers, on the other. “Within this present condition,” he explains, “all political oppositions are replaced by the elasticity of degrees, negotiations, proportions and balances” (4).

The humanitarian present arose, in Weizman’s account, out of a process of transformation undergone by the humanitarianism that had emerged, after some delay, from the aftermath of World War II. In the 1970s and 80s, a new humanitarianism took the Jewish victim of the Holocaust as the universal paradigm of humanitarian concern. By the 1990s, however, the independence of this humanitarianism had eroded, as it became (as in Powell’s speech) attached to and ultimately participant in political and military efforts. By the 2000s, then, humanitarianism had become “a legalistic strategy.” Supported by lesser-evil arguments that seek an optimal balance, the humanitarian present is most obviously expressed in IHL under the principle of proportionality. Weizman proposes the logic of the lesser evil as our “idiom to describe the most extreme manifestations of violence,” which today include targeted assassinations, civilian bombing, deportations, and torture (9). Proportionality serves many purposes in promoting the interests of political and military powers. It conforms to military necessity; its calculation (however hasty and/or flawed) confers legitimacy on acts undertaken pursuant to the calculation; and it works to manage violence and govern populations, all the while conveying to these populations the restraint of force being exercised (and which therefore may and likely will at some point no longer be exercised). All of this allows, if not encourages, the validation of extreme oppression as the fulfillment of humanitarian practice, as the lesser evil that is at least relatively (if only minimally) good. According to Weizman, then, “Gaza – where the system of humanitarian government is now most brutally exercised – is the proper noun for the horror of our humanitarian present” (6).

The Least of All Possible Evils opens with a theoretical introduction to the principle of the lesser evil, followed by three chapters detailing the transformation of humanitarianism and concluding with a brief epilogue. The introduction sets the stage for the story that Weizman unfolds, which begins with Voltaire’s Candide and the Leibnizian “best of all possible worlds.” The contemporary argument of the lesser evil, Weizman suggests, is a secularized revision of the argument for the best of all possible worlds (with its appreciation of lesser evils as relatively good and lesser goods as relatively evil), recasting “the sphere of morality as...

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