Saturday, March 09, 2002

The nones of March

Zygmunt Bauman: one of the premier sociologists writing on issues of modernity, identity, and the revenge of ambivalence

Think about how modern Islamism is, in the context of the following quote:

Narrating Inhumanity

Dehumanizing definitions of the enemy are not new in human history and hardly a peculiar feature of the modern age. They accompanied most wars - perhaps any war. During the combat, they were probably indispensible. The soldier had to suppress his aversion to kill and maim if he was not to be killed or maimed himself. There is a grim symmetry in battlefield contests. On both sides, suspension of the 'Thou shalt not kill' commandment regarding the Other becomes the condition of upholding it toward oneself (or, more perversely still, of coercing the Other to obey it). Defence of one's own right to live needs a denial of such right to the Other. In such a figuration, the Other need not - or so it seems - be defined. The Other defines himself - as the Enemy - as he casts one's respect for his moral identity into conflict with the protection of one's own. One can deny his being an enemy only at one's own peril.

While ostenibly surviving intact the advent of the modern age, the old tradition of dehumanizing the enemy in combat has been, like everything else, thoroughly revolutionized by modern organization and technology. The contest of individual combat skills - the duel in which chances of survival were evenly cast on both sides - was replaced with wholesale slaughter at a distance. Symmetry of intentions is no longer self-evident and self-corroborating - it has to be construed and demonstrated. More importantly, the symmetry of intentions always points to symmetry of practises, and modern weapons of mass annihilation are rationalized to stave off such symmetry. Unlike the combatants in a man-to-man battle, the objects of wholesale slaughter cannot have their humanity, however impaired, admitted. Modern weapons require a complete obliteration of the moral identity of their victims before they obliterate their bodies.

Paul Fussell, Professor of English atPennsylvania and a veteran of the Pacific War, remembers that 'Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys.' Army and Navy journals wrote of the 'gigantic task of extermination', and some of the marines landing on the islands held by the Japanese duly inscribed 'Rodent Exterminator' on their helmets. Dehumanization of the enemy was, of course, reciprocal. Its persistence on both sides, the shared forgetfulness of the humanity of the other side, made the massacres possible - as they allowed the participants to think of them as sanitary operations rather than murder. '...Let's pour gasoline into their bunkers and light it and then shoot those afire who try to get out. Why not? Why not blow them all up, with satchel charges or with something stronger? Why not, indeed, drop a new kind of bomb on them?'

With all its modern innnovations war remains a situation in which the adversaries retain the right to self-definition (in its developed stage at least, even if not always at the point of original assault.) The enemy appears to be objectively an enemy, while my denial of his right to be protected by moral commandments appears - again - as an exercise in reciprocity. Not so with genocide. Here, the object of extermination is defined unilaterally. No symmetry is applied or intimated in any form. By any stretch of the imagination, the other side is not an enemy, but a victim. It has been marked for annihilation because the logic of the order that the stronger side wishes to establish has no room for its presence. Most of the little wars which combined into the great war waged by Nazi Germany against the world were of this blatantly assymetrical character - removal of the aliens occupying German living space, or alien races burrowing into German life and corroding the German spirit. The object to be destroyed was defined fully by the vision of the future German Reich. And as Rubenstein and Roth point out, 'If the Holocaust has a single overriding lesson, it is that there is absolutely no limits to the obscenities a determined and powerful aggressor can freely visit upon stateless, powerless victims.'

Declaring that a particular category of people has no room in the future order is to say that this category is beyond redemption - cannot be reformed, adapted, or forced to adapt itslef. The Other is not a sinner, who can still repent or mend his ways. He is a diseased organism, 'both ill and infectious, both damaged and damaging'. He is fit only for a surgical operation; better still, for fumigation and poisoning. He must be destroyed so that the rest of the social body may retain its health. His destruction is a matter fo medicine and sanitation.

Hitler set the tone for all later Nazi narrative, describing his service to humanity (killing the Jews) as 'exterminating the pest'. Streicher's Der Stürmer hammered this defnition home with relentless monotony: 'Bacteria, vermin and pests cannot be tolerated. For reasons of cleanliness and hygiene we must make them harmless by killing them off'. The modern scientific discourse of race (of an immutable, ascribed quality - hopelessly 'nature ordained', admittedly hereditary, culturally unmanipulable, resistant to all remedy) from which the Nazi manufactur of the Other dre so lavishly, was from the start replete with the images of pathological deformation, degeneration, madness, sexual perversion. Theoretical concepts were inextricably interwoven with mdeical practises, taxonomic operations with surgical ones, conceptual oppositions with segregatory actions, abstract evaluations with social discriminations. Defining the other as vermin harnesses deeply entrenched fears, revulsion and disgust in the service of extermination. But also, and more seminally, it places the Other at an enormous mental distance at which moral rights are no loger visible. Having been stripped of humanity and redefined as vermin, the Other is no longer an object of moral evaluation.

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, pp. 46-48

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