The Least of All Possible Evils:
Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza
Verso Books, 2012
This book deals with contemporary forms of state violence that are structured by a similar logic of calculations and managed by an assortment of mechanisms of moderation. Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) when integrated into state or military practice, combine to provide the frame and the formulas within which these calculations are currently undertaken. A precise number of dead civilians could thus be set as an upper threshold for “proportional” military bombing missions; the size of fields and tonnage of their produce could thus be calculated against security necessities to moderate the design of territorial infringements; the supply of electric current, industrial diesel, and foodstuff – calculated and calibrated at their minimum possible megawatts, litters and calories – could thus be used to govern a population by keeping it on the threshold of life. The condition of incessant calculations in the collusions of humanitarian, human rights and humanitarian law with the logic of state violence is what this book refers to as the humanitarian present.
Groundbreaking exploration of the philosophy underpinning Western humanitarian intervention.
The principle of the “lesser evil” — the acceptability of pursuing one exceptional course of action in order to prevent a greater injustice — has long been a cornerstone of Western ethical philosophy. From its roots in classical ethics and Christian theology, to Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the work of the Jewish Councils during the Nazi regime, Weizman explores its development in three key transformations of the problem: the defining intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières in mid-1980s Ethiopia; the separation wall in Israel-Palestine; and international and human rights law in Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq. Drawing on a wealth of new research, Weizman charts the latest manifestation of this age-old idea. In doing so he shows how military and political intervention acquired a new “humanitarian” acceptability and legality in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.