In Sacred Violence, Paul W. Kahn defines sacrifice as that moment when the “violent destruction of the self is the realization of the transcendent character of the sovereign.” The power of the sovereign comes into being when the sovereign “takes possession of the body of the citizen, emptying it of any meaning it may have previously represented, and claiming it entirely.”
Torture, Terror and Sovereignty
(University of Michigan Press)
In Sacred Violence, political and legal theorist Paul W. Kahn investigates the reasons for the resort to violence characteristic of nation states.
Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights
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Chapter 2 of SACRED VIOLENCE.
At the moment the Nazi SS-man took an oath—vowing obedience unto death—he took the sovereign or nation into himself. Hitler declared to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” The SS-man, soldier and citizen were required to empty themselves—become nothing—in order to become possessed, filled by Hitler and Germany.
Nazism was an extreme instantiation of the dynamic of nationalism as sacrificial death. Hitler declared that the Aryan “willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.” To be national, Hitler said, meant acting with a “boundless and all-embracing love for the people and, if necessary, even to die for it.”
This dynamic linking sovereignty and sacrifice, however, according to Kahn, is not unique to Nazism. Rather, this dynamic constitutes the essence of the political domain. Nations become what they are when citizens are willing to sacrifice for a sacred ideal. Those truths a community holds to be self-evident become real to the extent that people are willing to die and kill for them.
We deceive ourselves, Kahn says, if we think Western political practices operate in a secular world “untouched by faith and the experience of the sacred.” A political idea for which one will not sacrifice, according to Kahn, is an idea that “has no place in the world.” Such an idea “belongs to no state”; is “purely fictional.” A house comes into existence when somebody invests in its material existence. The same is true of the state, only now the material investment is measured in “lives offered and sacrificed for this idea.”
A chapter in Nations Have the Right to Kill (Koenigsberg, 2009) is entitled, “As the Soldier Dies, So the Nation Comes Alive.” Carolyn Marvin asserts that “blood sacrifice creates the nation.” Kahn thus joins Marvin and me in viewing the dynamic of sacrificial death as the central component of nationalism, indeed as the constitutive variable defining the domain of politics. This is why warfare—dying and killing for a sacred community—lies at the heart of the historical process.
The sacrifice of the self, Kahn says, is the creative act of destruction that is the “realization of the sacred”: the sacred presence of the sovereign. Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of those who “gave their lives here that the nation might live.” The sacrificial death of soldiers—both of the Union and the Confederacy—constituted the “consecration of the battlefield.” Gettysburg— dead bodies on the battlefield—created a sacred space by “making present the sovereign.” Ultimately, the space of the battlefield expanded the presence of the sacred to include the entire nation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident….” However, the truth that is held to be self-evident by one political or religious community is usually not “self-evident” to another. Self-evident truths are not scientifically verifiable. Rather, a transcendent value becomes true to the extent that a people are willing to sacrifice for it. One gives up the finite self for a sacred ideal. Giving up the self in the political domain, Kahn says, take the form of a “willingness to kill and be killed.”
The Civil War represented a “new exchange of killing and being killed;” of “heroic sacrifice of self and other.” The Civil War put on permanent display the “sacrificial truth at the foundation of American politics”: that a nation with negligible external enemies will create for itself a “frenzy of killing and being killed for the sovereign.” We are still living, Kahn says, in the shadow of these sacrifices. The violence of American politics must be understood as a “practice of sacrifice for the sake of maintaining the material reality of a transcendent idea.”
In short, the proof of the pudding is in the dying and the killing. No ideology—no transcendent ideal—is true in and of itself. Willingness to die and kill for a political idea is what confers reality upon it. Only by virtue of sacrificial death—the willingness to die and kill—does a political ideal reveal itself as “self-evident.”
Each national or religious community has its own sacred ideology—truths held to be self-evident. Kahn notes that we can invest in many houses, but only in “one state, one family and one religion.” When we speak of “love of country,” we are speaking of love for a particular country. One may find other nations interesting, but only one’s own nation can claim one’s devotion.
Killing and being killed, Kahn observes, is a demand that “only the state can make on its members.” It is the “sovereign prerogative” to demand a life. When I say that “nations have the right to kill,” what I mean precisely is that human beings have acceded to nations the right to kill. We assume that nations have this right: to sacrifice the lives of its own people—and those of the nation’s enemies—in the name of a sacred ideal.
Ali Benhadj, a revolutionary Islamic leader from Algeria, stated that if a faith or belief is not “watered and irrigated by blood,” it does not grow—does not live. Principles or ideals must be “reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah.” Faith is propagated by “counting up deaths every day; by adding up massacres and charnel-houses.”
Suicide bombing is a demonstration of devotion to Allah. To those outside the community of belief, however, massacres that occurred in Algeria—and suicide bombings in many other parts of the world—make no sense whatsoever. But perhaps those outside the American community cannot conceive why 700,000 men died in order to “create a more perfect union.”
The war on terror, Kahn suggests, is a confrontation between “two political-theological constructions,” both of which operate on the “same ground of sacrificial violence.” Once politics enter the domain of sacred violence, conflict takes the form of each side “seeking to prove the other an idolater,” that is, a worshipper of false gods: a “worshipper of nothing at all.”
Each community holds certain truths to be “self-evident,” leading to a “clash of civilizations.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov summed up the current situation—and perhaps captured the essence of the historical process—in the following passage:
Man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. (That) these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they've slain each other with the sword. They have set up gods and challenged one another, "Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!