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  • “Never Again”: The Ethics of the Neighbor and the Logic of Genocide
  • Robert Meister (bio)

Proximity and Ethics

Since the fall of communism, there has been a growing literature on the responsibility of the “world community” to “never again” stand by while neighbors commit atrocities against neighbors (Power, “Never Again”).1 This literature has yet to be reformulated as a comprehensive political theory of the recent fin de siècle, but it is already clear that such a theory would base a global politics of human rights on an ethical commitment to view local cruelties, and especially the infliction of physical suffering, as an uncontestable evil, the prevention of which can justify external intervention in ways that earlier forms of imperialism did not. The interstate system still exists, of course, and is supported by a United Nations charter that prohibits unilateral invasions of one state by another. But from the standpoint of the advancing theory of humanitarian intervention this is now merely a practical obstacle, making it advisable (but not essential) for a state intervening in another on purely ethical grounds to claim the support of a multilateral coalition as a proxy for the world community itself. At the level of theory, if not yet of practice, the subject matter of global politics is already focused on humanitarian intervention to stop atrocities committed at the local level. Thus the primacy of the global over the local (which was once the basis of political imperialism) is now ostensibly humanized and offset by the primacy of the ethical over the political: an ethics that concerns the cruelties that groups inflict on others in close proximity, and a politics surrounding the responsibility of third parties to intervene in response to those cruelties.

I am not here making the point that such humanitarian interventions can involve violence committed at a distance, though they often do. The intervention to prevent the proximate violence by Kosovar Serbs against their Albanian neighbors consisted largely of the NATO bombing of Serbian cities. Both the ethnic cleansing of neighbors and the aerial bombardment of cities are prima facie violations of modern humanitarian law, and both are the subject of separate trials now underway in The Hague. These trials demonstrate the twentieth-century paradox that bombing is both the quintessential means of intervention to stop barbarity at a local level and the paradigm of barbarity inflicted at a distance (see Lindqvist, A History of Bombing).

My topic is not whether the “world community” should have (at least) bombed Auschwitz or Rwanda when the genocides there became known, but rather the conception of ethics and politics that underlies such dilemmas. According to this conception, bombing (like foreign occupation) can be a justifiable form of political intervention by third parties when preceded by gross ethical barbarities occurring among neighbors. The ethical condemnation of atrocity, if not the atrocity itself, must here precede political intervention. Contemporary humanitarian practice requires such a sequence because it is based on the premise that, in theory too, ethics comes before politics. The opposing position—putting politics before ethics—is now commonly derided as the error shared by right and left throughout the twentieth century, an era of revolution and counterrevolution in which individuals were exquisitely sensitive to the suffering of their comrades and insensitive to pain inflicted on their foes (see Glover and Rummel). This is what politics is, Carl Schmitt argues—a selective antidote to humanitarian pathos that makes it ultimately possible to kill (and die) for the sake of countrymen or comrades (Concept of the Political 71). The emergent literature on human rights implicitly shares Schmitt’s “concept of the political,” and for this very reason gives primacy to the ethical as a refusal to withhold one’s empathy selectively on political grounds.

The primacy of ethics over politics implicitly presupposes, however, specific limitations on the field of ethics itself. Viewed broadly, the raw material of ethics concerns languages and bodies in the sense that these are what matter from the ethical perspective when considering questions of agency and choice.2 Ethical discussion of languages (and cultural systems that resemble languages) are now commonly expected to focus on the problem of difference, and to prefer...

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