Humanitarian Warfare and Humanitarian Aid: Two Sides of the Same Sovereign

Just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Derrida warned, “An earthquake has completely transformed the landscape in which the ideal of tolerance took its first form” (Borradori 2003, 126). The “humanitarian crisis” resulting from the influx of refugees in Europe is part of the fallout of this earthquake. Or, using current military parlance for assessing what we can and cannot tolerate, refugees have become “collateral damage” in the war on terror. Indeed, the utilitarian calculus of collateral damage is at the epicenter of this changing landscape. As he so often does, Derrida points out that the ideal of tolerance has its roots in religion, specifically Christian charity. And, like other concepts we inherit from Christianity, including forgiveness, hospitality, witnessing, and abolitionism, tolerance is inherently linked with sovereignty. “Tolerance,” Derrida says, “is always on the side of the ‘reason of the strongest,’ where ‘might is right’; it is a supplementary mark of sovereignty, the good face of sovereignty, which says to the other from its elevated position, I am letting you be, you are not insufferable, I am leaving you a place in my home, but do not forget that this is my home” (Borradori 2003, 127, emphasis added).

When it comes to refugees, humanitarian aid is this “good face” of state sovereignty. Confident in our tolerance, humanitarian aid eases our conscience, despite the tremors shaking the foundations of any notion of “just war.” For the war on terror is a war without clearly defined territories, nation-states, enemies, front lines, national or international law, or even traditional declarations of war. Today, when covert rules of engagement loosely agreed upon in secret meetings between lawyers, politicians, and military commanders have replaced both national and international law, contemporary Western warfare sits on two extranational, extraterritorial pillars: on one side, international military forces, and on the other, international humanitarian aid organizations, the two frequently working together to create more “humane warfare.” In terms of refugees, this translates into the unhappy choice of treating those fleeing violence as either threats to be contained in detention centers or charity cases to be saved in camps, where the difference between the carceral model and the rescue model is ever more difficult to discern. Barbed wire fences and checkpoints surround refugee camps, and military personnel deliver medical and food supplies to the very people they’ve just bombed. Surgical strikes, smart bombs, and targeted drone warfare are circumscribed by a chain of command of lawyers operating according to extrajudicial powers, yet strictly adhering to international “rules of engagement” based on complex computer calculations of collateral damage using some classified utilitarian calculus purportedly designed to transform the war machine into a humanitarian machine, reducing death to a minimum and saving as many (human) lives as possible, all without leaving the military or the government vulnerable to media or legal scandal.

Yet, this seemingly extrajudicial warfare is all about the law, not only appeasing government and military lawyers who fear lawsuits but also and moreover laws of probability and proportionality through which the force of law becomes justified using statistical cost–benefit analysis. The calculating machine creates the humanitarian war machine, and the computer becomes an alibi for targeted killing both to limit and to justify collateral damage. Because it is extranational and extrajudicial, more than ever, Western warfare rationalizes its tactics with rules of engagement so that commanders in the CIA and MI-6 who make the rules, if not those actually sitting in tin cans in the middle of the Nevada desert who pull the triggers, can sleep at night. And, if this cool, calculated distance war isn’t enough to ward off ethical insomnia, today’s military delivers clean water, food, and medical supplies along with air-to-surface missiles and grenades. Walls, fences, and checkpoints, seemingly proof of homeland security, are actually evidence of the threat to this security, a threat that justifies more force in this might-makes-right brand of humanitarian tolerance and humanitarian warfare.[1]

International humanitarian aid and international high-tech military forces operate as two sides of the same sovereign, made stronger by threats to it. International humanitarian space and international military forces simultaneously call into question national sovereignty and shore it up. These two pillars, humanitarian aid and humanitarian war, operate according to an autoimmune logic by which the greatest threat to their survival is also what sustains them, namely, bloody wars, terror attacks, and human suffering. War creates refugees, and then we wage more war to address the situation of refugees, as in Syria, where the European Union and its allies have agreed to “work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria” (now supposedly with help from Turkey) (European Commission 2016), where improving humanitarian conditions includes continued military assaults on ISIS. The practical interdependence between military operations and humanitarian operations, especially in war zones, has been well documented, particularly by historians Michael Barnett and Eyal Weizman.[2] These scholars, among others, demonstrate how globalized international aid in so-called neutral humanitarian space, defined as beyond national borders and beyond politics, remains dependent on government agencies for funding and physical space and on military forces to protect and deliver aid workers and supplies.

A deconstructive analysis of the notion of “humanitarian” reveals the conceptual dependence of humanitarian aid on state sovereignty by tracing the concept of “humanitarian” back to its Christian roots and the ultimate sovereignty of God. In addition, deconstruction calls into question ethics and politics based on the notion of the human, the centerpiece of both humanitarian aid and human rights discourses, even when these discourses are at odds with each other, as they frequently are in debates over whether aid organizations should take sides or take up political causes. Deconstructive analysis asks us to consider, in the words of Derrida, “new claims for what are called human rights, [and thus] through the earthquakes of this century, the seisms at the frontier that displace even the definition of the front and the frontier, [in] the wars without war” (Derrida 2009b, 119, emphasis added). Whereas others have shown that humanitarianism remains in the service of state interests in terms of practical politics, I attempt a deconstructive analysis of the relationship between humanitarian aid (or space) and state sovereignty. To put it bluntly, state sovereignty creates the legal category “refugee,” which necessitates humanitarian aid organizations to step in to literally fill the space between state borders, and between citizens and refugees, which in turn fuels the police and military response to shore up borders and state sovereignty. This circular logic of sovereignty turns like Robinson Crusoe’s wheel, which becomes a metaphor for autoimmunity in Derrida’s 2001–3 seminars, The Beast and the Sovereign.

Arguably, the history of the concept of autoimmunity in Derrida’s thinking is a sort of reclamation of the term from biology back to politics, where it originated. In other words, biologists imported from politics, and not vice versa. Some accuse Derrida of “getting it wrong,” insofar as he talks about autoimmunity (which, according to biologists, is the immune system attacking the cells and organs of its own body) as if it were immune deficiency (which is the immune system not protecting the body against foreign bodies coming from outside).[3] As some scholars have pointed out, however, these metaphors of aliens, foreign bodies, invasion, and immunity originated in political discourse and were subsequently imported into biological discourse (e.g., see Miller 2011; Naas 2009).

In his first uses of the metaphor of autoimmunity, Derrida relates immunity to community, and the concept of autoimmunity eventually becomes associated with the necessary impulse of democratic communities both to open themselves to foreigners, on one hand, and to protect themselves from foreigners, on the other (e.g., see Miller 2011; Naas 2009; Haddad 2013). In even more stark terms, we could say, the autoimmune impulse is the impulse of democracy to protect itself from the nondemocratic actors and policies that threaten it by applying nondemocratic actors and policies itself: in the name of democracy, we shut down democratic processes. Ultimately, for Derrida, autoimmunity is the democratic body not only turning against itself but also protecting itself, “its chance and its fragility.”[4] Democracy is necessarily autoimmune in that it must open itself to foreign others and yet must also protect itself from others who threaten it. This autoimmune logic points to the tension between ethics and politics, between the unconditional and the conditional, between the pure and the contaminated, and even between theory and practice, insofar as these poles are in necessary tension with each other. Autoimmunity opens up the possibility of community, hospitality, and democracy, even as it necessitates the self-contradictory impulse to protect by destroying (Naas 2009). Derrida (2003, 124) is concerned with the “aporia between the positive and salutary role played by state sovereignty and citizenship as a form of protection, and on the other hand, the negative or limiting effects of state sovereignty when it closes its borders to noncitizens or monopolizes violence. Once again the state is both self-protecting and self-destroying, at once remedy and poison. The pharmakon is another name, an old name, for this autoimmunitary logic.”

Following Derrida, I use this figure of autoimmunity as a metaphor for the contradictory impulse both to protect and to destroy the social and political body in the name of democracy, hospitality, or, more to my point, humanity and humanitarianism. Discussing the development of the concept of autoimmunity in his work, Derrida says, “I tried to formalize the general law of this autoimmune process in ‘Faith and Knowledge,’ a text that initially grew out of a conversation about forgiveness and went on to speak about a ‘democracy to come’ in relation to the secret, forgiveness, and unconditionality in general, as a concept that exceeds the juridico-political sphere and yet, from the inside and the outside, is bound up with it. The formalization of this autoimmune law was there carried out around the community as auto-eo-immu-nity (the common of community having in common the same duty or charge [munus] as the immune), as well as the auto-co-immunity of humanity and particularly the autoimmune humanitarian” (Derrida 2005, 20, emphasis added). So, too, as we will see, contemporary humanitarian warfare is bound up with contemporary humanitarian aid in an autoimmune relationship that takes us back to the Christian roots of sovereignty.