The foundation of politics

July 26, 2011

Of
all the books that might be read to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, one of
the most probing is by a law professor at Yale, Paul Kahn. In Sacred
Violence,
Kahn
picks out two distinctive political problems of our post-9/11 world--terrorism
and torture--and argues that they are parallel. Both activities occur outside
the realm of the law, and both "inscribe meaning on bodies through pain or the
threat of pain."

Kahn's
point is not the obvious one that both torture and terrorism should be
condemned as illegal. He is interested in the fact that their illegality
neither stops these practices from occurring nor prevents them from being
politically defended by those who see them as the only way to save their
community. The rise of torture in response to terrorism reveals "a space of
sovereignty beyond law; it is the space of killing and being killed for the
state."

As
Kahn sees it, terrorism and the U.S. response to it reveal a fundamental truth
about all political life, one that the modern humanitarian project has sought
to minimize but has not been able to overturn: politics is founded not on
rationally arrived at laws but on violence. Indeed, what "sovereignty" means is
the power to determine the violence that people will commit or submit to. And
sovereignty operates just as much through the directives of a democratically
elected president as through the commands of a king.

What
people sacrifice their lives for--and what they are willing to sacrifice others
for--offers a glimpse of what they regard as sacred. The sacred is the
transcendent source of meaning that promises life and justifies death. Politics
itself, Kahn concludes, is founded on a vision of the sacred, for it is sealed
by violence--constituted by a willingness to kill and be killed, to degrade
others and to let oneself be degraded. "Terror and torture are contemporary
forms of this experience of the sacred."

Kahn's
account of the connection between sovereignty, violence and the sacred is
filled with theological implications. It prompts reflection on what political
community we belong to and who or what is sovereign for us.

Comments

wars, violence

I have been reading the site, "Iraq Veterans Against the Wars" and this fine essay by David Helm. I would like to encourage the readers of the Christian Century blogs to read this other blog by veterans. I am going to post a comment with the other site as well to turn to Helm's words.
We too often talk in parallel terms and need to find a way to bridge and interact.
Bob Collie
http://theapostlepaulandposttraumaticstress.blogspot.com/