Humanitarian Aid as Poison and Cure

On a daily basis, international humanitarian aid organizations and international military forces engage in calculations of life and death, weighing the lives of some against the lives of others, the risks of taking in refugees versus the risks of refusing them, calculations designed to determine how much suffering is tolerable. Tolerance, from the Latin tolerare, “to tolerate,” means to endure, especially something painful. In the utilitarian calculus of humanitarian war, pain and suffering are no longer qualities or capacities that define humanity but rather quantities plugged into equations of life and death. How much suffering we can tolerate becomes weighing the “lesser of evils” in an economy of exchange, proportionality, and collateral damage. Tolerance has always been a matter of endurance—how much pain and suffering we can tolerate. Only now, tolerance is measured, quantified, and calculated using the latest computer models and sophisticated risk–benefit rubrics.

“Tolerance,” says Derrida, “is actually the opposite of hospitality” (Borradori 2003, 127). Unconditional hospitality does not calculate or quantify but rather opens itself up to what comes from opening doors and windows and exposing oneself to the threshold: “Supposing that we dwelled on the threshold, we would also have to endure the ordeal of feeling the earthquake always under way, threatening the existence of every threshold, threatening both its indivisibility and its foundational solidity” (Derrida 2009b, 413, emphasis added)—that is to say, threatening the sovereignty of the subject or citizen, and the state or nation, and of any and every body that takes itself to be self-determined and autonomous, and therefore immune to suffering. As it is, humanitarian aid that leaves refugees locked in camps and detention centers, barely able to survive, hardly counts as tolerance, let alone hospitality. Camps are places of containment, not welcome, in a world where is it becoming more and more difficult to distinguish humanitarian aid from humanitarian warfare.

Derrida (2006, 106) describes the role of what he calls the “philosopher-deconstructor” as analyzing “the practical and effective consequences of the relationship between our philosophical heritage and the structure of the [still] dominant juridico-political system, even as it is undergoing mutation [even as an earthquake is transforming the landscape], not in order to justify it, but in order to comprehend it.” As he says, one can describe and explain associations and events that “lead to war or terrorism without justifying them in the least, while in fact condemning them and attempting to invent other associations” (Derrida 2006, 106). Conversely, one can critically engage human rights, humanitarian aid, and humanitarian space without condemning them, perhaps even endorsing them, while issuing a warning about the ways in which they play into the hands of the very systems that perpetuate continued violence and suffering.

Copyright 2016 by Kelly Oliver

Powered by Manifold Scholarship. Learn more at