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Part 1 of Dying and Killing for Nations: Warfare as Sacrifice

The Sovereign is Born in a Sacrificial Shedding of Blood
Scroll down the page to read Paul W. Kahn
Commentary, Richard Koenigsberg: Paul Kahn observes that killing and being killed is a demand that “only the state can make on its members.” It is the “sovereign prerogative” to demand a life.

A sacrificial politics is one in which the “violent destruction of the self” is the realization of the “transcendent character of the sovereign.” The sovereign is the sovereign by virtue of his capacity to ask human beings to kill and to die.

The sovereign is born in a “sacrificial shedding of blood.” One knows that the popular sovereign is present—not only by counting the numbers in the crowd—but by “witnessing acts of sacrifice.” The power of the sovereign is that of taking possession of the body of the citizen—and claiming it entirely. This claim takes the twofold form of killing and being killed.

Once politics enters the domain of sacred violence, Kahn explains, conflict takes the form of each side seeking to “prove the other an idolater,” that is, a worshipper of “false gods,” which means a worshipper of “nothing at all.”

The body of the enemy, Kahn says, must be read as a “sacrifice for our god alone.” In the classical tradition, defeat was the moment at which all the men were killed, the women and children sold into slavery, and the city razed. A people are literally destroyed to “prove the emptiness of their faith.”

We now call this practice “genocide,” which means destroying the Other’s god to prove that our god is more powerful—the one true god.

Although some speak of warfare in terms of “security,” Kahn insists that the fundamental characteristic of war is “killing and being killed, the destruction of life and property,” not security.

One might say that we don’t wage war—kill and destroy—in order to achieve practical objectives. Killing and destroying, rather, are the fundamental purpose of warfare—the way we prove that our own sacred ideologies are real and true—and that the other ideologies are unreal and false.
This issue of the LSS Newsletter summarizes Chapter V of Kahn’s book, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Click here to read the complete Chapter with references.
Paul W. Kahn is the Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and the Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights.
Book by Paul Kahn
Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty

For information on ordering, please click here.
Killing and being killed is a demand that only the state can make on its members. It is the “sovereign prerogative” to demand a life. To act on that demand is more than accepting a delegation of sovereign power. It is to participate in sovereignty; it is to be as an instance of the sovereign.

A sacrificial politics is not one in which I get something in return for offering up my life. Rather, sacrifice is a means of consecrating, of participating in the sacred. A sacrificial politics is one in which the violent destruction of the self is the realization of the transcendent character of the sovereign. The infinite value of the sovereign displaces the finite value of the individual. That displacement is the violence that creates meaning: sacrifice.

The sovereign is born in a sacrificial shedding of blood that marks a new appearance of the sacred. One knows that the popular sovereign is present not by counting the numbers in the crowds but by witnessing acts of sacrifice. The power of the sovereign is that of taking possession of the body of the citizen, emptying it of any meaning that it may have previously represented, and claiming it entirely. That claim takes the twofold form of killing and being killed.

Traditionally, the power of a god was displayed in its capacity to destroy. Sovereign violence perpetuates this elemental form of the sacred. Terrorist violence, no less than lawful forms of combat, is an insistence that others see the same presence of the sacred sacrificial violence appears within the bordered space of law.

Torture and terror are violent forms of the production of truth: the truth of political sovereignty. The task of political philosophy is not to condemn their lawlessness but to understand the social imaginary within which this political violence not only makes sense but appears necessary. That social imaginary is one in which the polity is an expression of the will of the sovereign, the community rests on an erotic bond-not a judgment of reason-and citizen participation in the sovereign is realized through sacrifice.

The subject, or bearer, of sovereignty in the West has moved from God to monarch to the people. The point, however, is always the same. The sovereign is the source of meaning: it is not a means to any end apart from itself. It reveals itself in the act of sacrifice. Terror and torture are contemporary forms of killing and being killed in the political-theological space of sovereignty. We can try to cabin sacrificial violence by law.

Indeed, that has been the project of modern international law. It has not, however, had great success. In the twentieth century, we had more and more law, but violence always escaped the boundaries of law. The forms of violence may be changing in the twenty-first century, but the general pattern of more law and more violence looks to remain the same.

Today's war on terror is a confrontation between two political-theological constructions of meaning, only one of which is Western but both of which operate on the same ground of sacrificial violence. Once politics enters the domain of sacred violence, conflict takes the form of each side seeking to prove the other an idolater-that is, a worshiper of false gods, which means a worshiper of nothing at all.

The body of the enemy must be read as a sacrifice for our god alone. In the classical tradition, defeat was the moment at which all the men were killed, the women and children sold into slavery, and the city razed. A people are literally destroyed to prove the emptiness of their faith. Today we call that practice genocide. The legal prohibition has hardly done away with the impulse; it has not even eliminated the practice.

The state goes to great effort to obtain the return of the war dead; it buries them under the flag. The sacred is not an idea but a presence. The tomb of the unknown soldier is not just a memorial; it must contain the body of the fallen soldier. The maimed veteran is a kind of living memorial that intrudes into our everyday life to remind us of the claim of the sovereign on the citizen's body.

When the mother demands to know her state comes into being. Individual rights and personal security, however, cannot provide the frame of reference for understanding the state at war. The fundamental feature of war is killing and being killed, the destruction of life and property, not security.

It is as if the state that structures itself through law in order to secure individual well-being enters into a parody of itself in which all values, including life itself, are inverted. War always borders on the carnivalesque. At stake in war is neither the life and death of the individual nor the distribution of goods but the existence of the sovereign as an imagined reality of transcendent value.

The existence of the sovereign is not a state of being of individuals or institutions that can be objectively measured. The scale of an existential threat works entirely in the imagination, just as a threat to religious belief cannot be measured in actual numbers.

The sovereign is threatened whenever the perception of threat arises. In retrospect, individuals and communities may come to believe their perception of the threat was wrong. They wonder what it was that moved them to sacrifice, just as an adult may wonder what it was that moved him so deeply when he was in love in his youth. When the killing and being killed of war begins, we see that instead of the state offering a means to the end of individual well-being sovereignty shows itself as an end in itself. For this reason, there is nothing liberal about war.

The sacred erupts into political life in the same way that the sacred appears elsewhere-as if from nowhere. It cannot be explained as the consequence of a chain of causation that is either temporal or spatial.” It is just the other way around: the sacred creates the borders of time and space. There is no polity without a homeland and no homeland without a founding narrative.

This space is sanctified by the appearance of the sacred, which is preserved in memory by the national narrative. Political space, like national history, is created through the willingness to sacrifice. It reaches just as far as it has been or will be defended as a matter of life and death. Despite the universal aspiration of law, political communities exist in a world of polytheism. Each sovereign nation will defend its own continued existence against other claims to the sacred.

Sacrifice always has an ineffable quality. It is the act that follows the end of argument; it moves beyond that which argument can justify or law can demand. The purpose of the memorial is to reclaim, and thus cabin, the violent, sacrificial act by giving it speech. That immediately makes the violence something other than itself: a representation, not an act of sacred presence.

By converting the sacrificial act to a representation, the triumph of law is rendered secure from the violence of the sovereign. Has not the role of ritual and representation always been to convert the destructive character of the sacred presence into a memory of itself? Order, including law, law on the other.

A third possibility, and perhaps the most likely, is recovery of the rhetoric of memorialization. The Vietnam veteran is finally silenced when he is memorialized as himself a sacrificial patriot. He moves from victim/murderer to the citizen/soldier linked in the great chain of national martyrdom. He moves out of the street and back into the cabined space of the memorial—quite literally onto the Mall.

He is silenced by his own sainthood. The Vietnam veteran's accusation that the state is an instrument of torture and murder becomes a dim political memory that can no longer be spoken and of which we do not want to be reminded-as John Kerry recently discovered when he threatened once again to disrupt the narrative of citizen sacrifice with the cry of victimization.

At stake in these symbolic battles are not the dead but the meaning of history for the living. There is no moment of life that is more contested in its meaning than death. Even the person who affirms his faith, believing that he dies a martyr, may lose control and come to be seen as murdered-and vice versa when the person who experiences his death as murder is memorialized as a martyr. The sovereign promises life until the moment when it is seen as the instrument of death. This is the threat of failed memorialization: the veteran can report that it was not renewed life but only death that he saw.

All citizen-soldiers know a deeply disturbing truth: that in the face of death there is a certain homogeneity of fear, that all men can feel abandoned by their god-religious or political-on the battlefield. One does not need to be a combatant to know this to be true. Only with the structured performance of memorialization does death turn securely to sacrifice and fear to faith. These are meanings, after all, that must be secured for the survivors.

Memorialization is one way of managing contact between law and sovereign violence. Scapegoating is another. The scapegoat bears the sins of the community, taking onto himself symbolically that which the community can neither do without nor acknowledge as its own. He is both polluted and sanctified. The sin must be cleansed. Memorialization refuses to see killing and being killed as anything other than sacrifice.

Scapegoating sees the killing but pushes the killer out of sight. Where memorialization is not possible, scapegoating is necessary. We see just this relationship between memorialization and scapegoating in the case of the veteran.

Warfare can be sustained only as long as there is a perception of an enemy. Without that perception, killing will be seen as murder and injury will not be seen as sacrifice. However, once there is a reciprocal perception of an enemy, once sovereign existence and the presence of the sacred is at stake, wars are won by eliminating the conditions under which sacrifice will continue.

This means to destroy the faith in the alien sovereign. That act of destruction is exactly the experience of degradation. This is what combatants do. Without achieving this end, the destruction of war is no more meaningful than that of a natural disaster. It is only injury to be repaired as quickly as possible.