Cover image for The Violence of Victimhood By Diane Enns

The Violence of Victimhood

Diane Enns


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ISBN: 978-0-271-05242-7

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248 pages
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The Violence of Victimhood

Diane Enns

“Diane Enns’s book The Violence of Victimhood will be read with admiration and a passionate interest by anyone who confronts the moral, philosophical, and political dilemmas of extreme violence in contemporary society: scholars, activists, citizens. Instead of simply naming the ambivalence of the category of victimhood, she wants to understand it in all its determinations, moral and historical. She confronts with great rigor an impressive corpus of interpretations, past and present, Western and postcolonial. She delineates a politics of life with no concession to wishful thinking. A most necessary, most timely book.”


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We know that violence breeds violence. We need look no further than the wars in the western Balkans, the genocide in Rwanda, or the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine. But we don’t know how to deal with the messy moral and political quandaries that result when victims become perpetrators. When the line between guilt and innocence wavers and we are confronted by the suffering of the victim who turns to violence, judgment may give way to moral relativism or liberal tolerance, compassion to a pity that denies culpability. This is the point of departure in The Violence of Victimhood and the impetus for its call for renewed considerations of responsibility, judgment, compassion, and nonviolent politics.

To address her provocative questions, Diane Enns draws on an unusually wide-ranging cast of characters from the fields of feminism, philosophy, peacebuilding, political theory, and psychoanalysis. In the process, she makes an original contribution to each, enriching discussions that are otherwise constricted by disciplinary boundaries and an arid distinction between theory and practice.

“Diane Enns’s book The Violence of Victimhood will be read with admiration and a passionate interest by anyone who confronts the moral, philosophical, and political dilemmas of extreme violence in contemporary society: scholars, activists, citizens. Instead of simply naming the ambivalence of the category of victimhood, she wants to understand it in all its determinations, moral and historical. She confronts with great rigor an impressive corpus of interpretations, past and present, Western and postcolonial. She delineates a politics of life with no concession to wishful thinking. A most necessary, most timely book.”
“Diane Enns powerfully shows how easily we can lapse into misleading and dangerous assumptions about the entitlements and authority of victims. While seeking to respect and repair the victims of violence, we may defer too much, with damaging consequences. This beautifully written and thoughtful book poses central questions about conflict and its aftermath.”
The Violence of Victimhood is original in its question and extremely well researched. The discussion of widely held and largely unexamined claims regarding the moral status of the other, of trauma, of victims, of powerlessness, and so on is very fresh and insightful. . . . The breadth and depth of the research is astounding. Diane Enns knows all the secondary literature and brings it fruitfully to bear without losing her own original voice.”
“This is an important book. It is an urgent book. In language at once analytic and passionate, Diane Enns confronts the cult of ‘otherness’—without denying the truths to which it points—and substitutes for it a universal ethic of nonviolent action, without denying the complexities it involves. For those seeking building blocks for solidarity in our age, The Violence of Victimhood is an essential read.”

Diane Enns is Associate Professor of Philosophy at McMaster University.




1 The Good Other

2 When Victims Become Killers

3 Indelible Wounds

4 Arendt in Jerusalem

5 To Kill or Be Killed

6 Mercy for the Merciless

7 Lay Down Your Arms





We know that victims of violence are capable of violence themselves. Our media bombard us with daily examples, from the pedophile who was once the victim of sexual abuse to the bullied youth who goes on a killing spree. What we don’t know is how to deal with the messy moral and political quandaries caused by the violent actions of victims. When the line between guilt and innocence wavers, when we are not sure who is responsible for what, and when we are overwhelmed by compassion or pity for the victim who victimizes, we can become unsettled by the ambiguity of events and our resulting ambivalence. To avoid the discomfort and the dogged work of moral judgment and political action that the situation demands, we might respond that everyone is a victim—that no one is responsible—and that any one of us would have acted the same way under such circumstances. We may then wash our hands of the mess and leave it to the law.

The hard questions of this book arise out of such ambivalence. Many have commented on an increasing concern—even obsession—with victims in contemporary Western society, or perhaps globally.1 It could be traced to Freud’s writings, to the postwar years in Europe, when the returning soldier’s trauma came to light, to the Nazi Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish victim as the standard for victimhood, and to feminism’s interventions in the legal system’s response to rape. Tracing this history would constitute a study in its own right. I am more interested in exploring its effects in a number of divergent realms.

Expressions of the ambivalence and moral anxiety aroused by the victim who turns to violence are not difficult to find. In a political philosophy course I taught to undergraduates at a Canadian university in 2008, such ambivalence quickly became apparent when we read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. This autobiographical account relates the harrowing tale of Beah’s life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, leading up to the dramatic events that preceded his rehabilitation and new life in the United States. Abducted at the age of twelve and forced to kill under the influence of drugs and ideology, Beah’s predicament provides an excruciating moral and political paradox for anyone concerned with the condition and status of the victim of violence in these times. In a final assignment, I invited my students to reflect on Beah’s status as a “victim-turned-perpetrator,” asking them to discuss the ambiguity of his condition and how we should respond to it. Only two out of many more than one hundred students considered—reluctantly and apologetically—Beah’s responsibility for acts of murder and torture. Overwhelmingly, despite three months of discussions considering the moral and political challenges of dealing with victims who turn to violence, the students were unable or unwilling to negotiate competing claims for a compassionate, merciful response and the demand for moral judgment and accountability in the case of Ishmael Beah. He was quite rightly acknowledged as a victim who was forced to kill by circumstances, but this acknowledgment created a blind spot when it came to his victims. In theory the students could grant Beah’s status as both victim and perpetrator, but in practice it seemed impossible for them to respond to him as a victim while simultaneously requiring that he be accountable as a perpetrator in order to respond to the suffering of his victims.

Beyond my classroom, we don’t have to look far to find the telltale effects of our ambivalence toward the condition and status of victimhood. Taking the cultural pulse on the question of victimhood is not difficult, starting with the Oprah Winfrey show, which Eva Illouz calls “a popular cultural form that makes sense of suffering at a time when psychic pain has become a permanent feature of our politics.”2 Oprah’s guests, as well as her audience, often identify as—or with—victims whose suffering invites the emotional catharsis of the talking cure. Contemporary films corroborate the Oprah effect. In Paul Haggis’s film Crash (2004), which depicts the state of racism in Los Angeles, we are invited to empathize with every perpetrator of a racist or sexist act of violence. The viewer is tempted to absolve even the obnoxious white police officer who molests a black woman while on duty, when we discover his poignant tenderness toward an ailing father, and his final act of bravado—pulling the same woman he previously molested out of a burning car at the scene of a near-fatal accident. The recent vampire film by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In (2008), elicits compassion for a vampire who must kill to sustain herself. Indeed, her victims solicit less pity than does the vampire. Who is the victim? The vampire or the individual whose blood keeps her alive? This may not be new—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave us insight into the monster’s own heartache—but the extent to which this ambivalence is exerting itself in the realm of politics and ethics, encouraging moral relativism and a reticence to judge, is something new, and troubling.

Consider Slavoj Žižek’s concern over the “humanization” of soldiers, a current cultural phenomenon he believes is apparent in films but also in the reality of daily life in Israel. The Hurt Locker, for example, is a recent film depicting the ordeal of soldiers who risk death while dismantling terrorist bombs meant for civilians. “Can there be anything more sympathetic to our liberal sensibilities?” Žižek asks. For these squads appear to be just like the U.S. Army—a humanitarian force in the war against terror, patiently dismantling the weapons of terrorism for the sake of civilian safety. This effect is replicated in films like Lebanon and Waltz with Bashir, which narrate events from the perspective of Israeli soldiers, highlighting “the perpetrator’s traumatic experience.” Žižek concludes, “Such a ‘humanization’ thus serves to obfuscate the key point: the need for a ruthless analysis of what we are doing in our political-military activity and what is at stake. Our political-military struggles are not an opaque history that brutally disrupts our intimate personal lives—they are something in which we fully participate.”3

In each of these examples, a certain “regard” for the perpetrator waylays judgment, whether compassion, pity, empathy, tolerance, or even veneration. We are invited into the emotional or psychic existence of the perpetrator—to identify with her suffering—and no longer feel that it is our place to judge the rightness or wrongness of her actions; we substitute pity for “ruthless analysis,” or a false empathy for accepting our own responsibility. It would be simplistic to criticize this ambivalence as unequivocally misguided or dangerous, as such portrayals of perpetrators as victims have also made us keenly and rightly aware of the human vulnerability and fragility of the perpetrator. Or at least of some perpetrators. There are the terrorists, whom we perceive to be monstrous in their wrongdoing, and then there are the normal people we all know, who commit wrong because somewhere along the way they were misinformed, badly raised, or victimized by abusive and neglectful adults. We could add the soldier, who may occupy a category of his or her own—those who are forced to do the dirty work for the rest of us, their deeds forgotten in our gratefulness for their sacrifice and our pity for their struggles. That these films reveal this vulnerability and make us doubt our perhaps typical responses to perpetrators is to their credit, but it places us smack in the middle of a difficult quandary: how do we make moral judgments against those whose circumstances solicit overwhelming compassion? Once we see the soft, frail underbelly of the perpetrators—killers, genocidaires, racists, misogynists, rapists, warmongers, even a lonely young vampire—how do we demand their accountability? I will argue that it is precisely our familiarity with others’ vulnerability that allows us to make judgments—merciful judgments that require the ruthless analysis of which Žižek speaks, but also respect for another’s agency and compassion for her predicament.

Cultural commentators have dealt with the dangers of noting this fragility impatiently and contentiously—but not without humor—in recent years. Charles Sykes argued in the early 1990s that America has become “a nation of victims.” From the cyclist who claims to be victimized by “motorism” to the feminist who argues she is victimized by Western ideals of beauty, “this squalling howl of grievance,” Sykes suggests, has “become a national chorus.” The consequences are significant: we don’t need to accept responsibility for our actions because there is always someone else to blame; we actively compete for victimhood status; we experience “compassion fatigue” and learn to ignore the appeals of “real” victims whose voices are drowned out by the ever growing list of “certifiable” victims; we become hypersensitive to actions deemed discriminatory and use resentment as a weapon of social advantage. These are the problematic results of “victimism,” a discourse that Sykes argues is reshaping America’s employment practices, criminal justice system, and education policies. He is particularly wary of the manifestations of victimism in academia, where political correctness is constantly raising the stakes. From handbooks filled with words and phrases that should be shunned in order to avoid giving offense (Sykes mentions “disabled,” “he,” and “black mood”), to the grumbling of students who are forced to read the work of “dead white males” with whom they do not identify, the intellectual landscape of academia has been transformed. “American life is increasingly characterized by the plaintive insistence, I am a victim,” Sykes concludes. It is a remarkable egalitarian victimization that expresses itself in the mantra “I am not responsible; it’s not my fault.”4

Sykes’s argument is meant to inflame, but he has a point, and it is significant that he made it some time ago. The message seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The examples he uses are often superficial and extreme, leaving him open to criticism from scholars such as Alyson Cole, who dismisses him as one more right-wing proponent of “anti-victimism”—defined as a campaign especially targeting feminists and antiracists that associates victimization with “weakness, passivity, dependency, and effeminacy.” While it seems as though contemporary American society is increasingly concerned with and responsive to suffering, from new laws and public funding to the therapy industry and the victim’s rights movement, Cole insists that current political discourse is in fact dominated by claims that are not sympathetic to victims but against them. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that victimhood is “vilified,” especially by those, like Sykes, who turn “victim” into an epithet, dismissing, ridiculing, condemning, shaming those who claim victim status.5

Cole does not limit her critique to the politically conservative, however. She claims that those on the left who wish to dissociate themselves from victim politics also contribute to an anti-victimist discourse that ends up blaming the victim. This is especially obvious, according to Cole, in the current “anti-feminist backlash,” particularly visible in the “crusade” against identity politics.6 As she sees it, this crusade mistakenly criticizes “almost any form of collectivism” as inherently victimist, since it encourages dependency on a group and nurtures an ideological basis for emancipatory action. Cole refers to Wendy Brown as a representative of the Left who has contributed to the anti-victimist distaste for identity politics. Her conservative counterpart is Shelby Steele, well known for his description of the melancholic black man who cannot “disengage from the past of slavery and discrimination” and refuses to assume responsibility for his own condition.7

Sykes argues that we have arrived at this point because naming and identifying victims has taken the place of public discourse and conscience. In other words, it has become a substitute for politics and good moral judgment. In the academy, especially, we are failing to judge, and to perform the political acts that judgments should inform, in the name of tolerance or cultural sensitivity. This criticism flies in the face of concepts and practices we have come to embrace, particularly in the academic discourses of emancipation: empowerment, recognition, responsibility for the “other.” But it is time we ask: empowerment and recognition for the victim at what cost? The “immense powers” ascribed to victims cannot remain unexamined; we are reaping what we sowed when we decided that the rights of victims and the desire to empower them should take precedence over all other moral and political considerations. Our response to suffering may not cure it.

This project was initially conceived on a double plane, taking issue with certain emancipatory discourses prevalent in the Western academy that venerate the status of “otherness” while simultaneously becoming interested in the victim of political conflict and the aftermath of war, colonization, occupation, or genocide. Despite some opposition, I hold to the idea that this starting point is significant not only for developing my particular argument but for the larger picture as well. A product of a generation of students who absorbed, without much debate, the seductive discourse of otherness, I became more and more disillusioned by the politics this discourse engendered, particularly through my experience teaching courses in women’s studies programs (more on this in chapter 1). I maintain that the identity politics we find today on North American campuses, and in society in general, is different only in its scale and effects from the politics that plays out in political arenas elsewhere. This does not rule out other vast differences that contribute to political conflict, like economic disparity, corrupt governments, and, increasingly, environmental destruction and scarcity of resources, but these factors are beyond the scope of my concerns here.

It is urgent that we consider the limits of the discourse of the other and its assumed association with victimhood, for the discrete borders of these terms break down when we consider the violence of the Palestinian suicide bomber, or of the Hutu killing his or her Tutsi neighbor. I will argue that the victimized other has acquired a status beyond critique, that it has become a metaphor for “the good.” This is a function of guilt on the part of those who feel responsible for the wounds of yesterday’s victims, and of revenge on the part of those who vow never again to be victimized, rendering justice a matter of either self-recrimination or revenge.

I am interested in identifying these limits, but we must go beyond a simple deconstruction of victimhood. While a critique of identity politics and its production of the binary logic of victimhood is still relevant, indeed urgent, it is not my only concern here. The work of Jacques Derrida and his contemporaries—proponents of a phenomenological and poststructuralist approach to philosophy—appeals to me for its attention to unsettling essentialist claims. I have argued in previous work for the usefulness, even the necessity, of this kind of destabilizing work for politics—of attending to difference, incommensurability, ambiguity, paradox, aporia, and indeterminacy.8 Derrida and many of his interlocutors—Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, among others—have provided what is probably the best critique of the dangers of identity politics. But what has come to be known as the “ethicopolitical” is unsatisfying on another level. There is strong resistance to making moral claims of any kind in the interests of preserving particularity, historical context, and contingency. Despite Derrida’s stance against capital punishment, for example, his conditional/unconditional formula—the calculable/incalculable, determinate/indeterminate—leaves ambiguous one side of the dialectic: calculative decisions are necessary in matters of morals, law, and politics, but they can be dangerous or damaging without the incalculable, the unconditional, which is alleged to give rise to these decisions.9 This point is purposely left obscure, as anything “calculable” is considered a plan, normative programming, or technology, all of which are condemned as problematic because they cannot account for difference. There is no middle ground here—a serious irony, given that Derrida’s work is generally preoccupied with middle grounds; one either accepts the terms deconstruction sets out (that politics is undecidable) or falls in with the misguided folks who promote a normative approach.10

Moral judgment has become an unpopular concept and practice since the rise of a certain ideology concerning cultural difference. Todd May argues that the French thinkers associated with the poststructuralist tradition have been reluctant to engage in moral discourse. Morality has become the undisputed jurisdiction of the political Right, associated with family values and prominent in conservative discourse. On the left, morality itself is believed to contain a certain conservative element, May suggests, one that denies difference. Thus, for example, the Left must defend multiculturalism on the grounds that humans possess no common values. “The universalist claims put forward by morality, it is said, fail to recognize diversity that characterizes different people’s moral lives. The argument runs roughly like this: since there are no universal moral values, no set of values can claim ultimate superiority over any other; therefore, people should be exposed to a diversity of moral views.”11 Foucault provides a good example of this avoidance of moral discourse. He makes a case against “universal necessities in human existence” and against “speaking for others” (a sacrosanct policy in feminist discourse).12 No matter that Foucault certainly speaks for the insane, the imprisoned, and sexed subjects throughout his work (Herculine Barbin and Pierre Rivière especially). Emmanuel Levinas’s work is said to provide no moral theory but to promote an “ethical relation to the other” as first philosophy. Morals are passé, replaced by responsibility. As I argue later, however, this is a responsibility for the other without judgment, an abstract ethical relation that leaves no room for grappling with moral dilemmas or for the agency and responsibility of the victimized other.

It is curious, then, that these philosophers speak in the name of a politics that is purported to be ethical, and yet we are left with theories—beautiful and seductive, perhaps—that are of limited use when it comes to political practice and moral judgment. Their work has had a tremendous impact on the ethicopolitical, a term that captures what is central to both ethics and politics: the demand for deliberation and urgent action in answer to the question “what should I do?”13 In privileging responsibility, however, they ignore moral judgment, not morality itself. Ethics becomes about one’s relation to the other and one’s infinite responsibility to that other; questions about right or wrong actions are avoided. As in discussions of “the political” (rather than “politics”), “the ethical” is abstracted from any reality that might require a moral act. Hence the conclusion of the first chapter of this book: that Levinas leads us to a benevolent but empty regard for an abstract other.

My initial enthusiasm about the usefulness of the poststructuralist tradition for political action has waned as I have become more exposed to the actual details of political work, to the energy and persistence of political actors, and to the perplexed expressions of those practitioners with whom I attempt to discuss the political claims of poststructuralism. I am not referring to the perplexity of the uneducated in the face of difficult intellectual ideas but to the skepticism of the political practitioner in the face of the often presumptuous, untested hypotheses of the armchair philosopher. Our interest and intervention in political events cannot remain solely on the plane of textual critique.14

While this book does not engage with the work of these thinkers in a sustained manner, I take their work and the tradition of which they are a part as my point of departure. Since my initial attraction to Derrida’s insistence on the undecidability of politics, preceded by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who rigorously defends the contingency of politics, and Simone de Beauvoir, whose marvelous description of the ambiguity of ethics is as relevant today as ever, I have wrestled with how to negotiate what is for many the greatest challenge in the politics of the poststructuralist tradition: how to reconcile contingency with the desire for practical solutions. Derrida demonstrates, perhaps better than most, the impossibility of this reconciliation, and therefore often leaves his readers in the frustrated state of wanting more—more reassurance, security, universality, and normativity. It isn’t reassurance or security I seek, however, but relevance and utility, a pragmatic approach to moral and political dilemmas that needs no “unconditional” reference point.15

If our current political practice, arising out of these discourses on difference and otherness, is based on identity claims, and on justice as vengeance, it is urgent that we develop alternative political paradigms. Despite my reservations about the usefulness of poststructuralist political thought, it has provided us with a rich terrain for discussing the meaning of politics. “The political” may be an abstraction from political events and “politics” as we know it—governing institutions, deliberative democracy, the structures that enable public life—but it has also made us think deeply about what it means to speak of political thought and action. These thinkers have given flesh to any dry understanding of politics in its institutional and organizational forms. Politics is agonistic, contingent, full of conflict but also of solidarity, respect, and friendship, the very stuff of life among human beings who must get along together despite our many differences and ways of understanding the world.

We find in Hannah Arendt the same warning against following prescribed norms or rules without the turn toward an “unconditional” that Derrida and Levinas insist must break in on the conditional if it is to have any meaning at all. There is no “outside,” no “beyond” or transcendent element in Arendt’s historical analysis, no anxiety about “sameness,” and yet she is of the same generation of scholars, born in proximity to totalitarianism. While Arendt remains skeptical about the effects of political solidarity, her emphasis on action, agency, and responsibility always occurs in the context of a pluralistic community of thinking individuals. And her analyses are always pragmatic.

Arendt’s view of politics has informed this project deeply. In The Human Condition she observes that “action is the political activity par excellence.” It is natality, then, and not mortality that is central to politics; each new act is a new beginning, unpredictable, unforeseeable. This means that we can expect the unexpected from one another; we can “perform what is infinitely improbable.”16 It is a daunting freedom, but one we would never want to do without, for otherwise we would be destined to repeat our errors. Such a politics requires imagination and vision—old paradigms must be rethought—as well as collective moral judgment and action against injustice. I assume politics to mean the activities and relations in which humans engage in order to live (and, ideally, flourish) among one another. I am more interested in what occurs at the level of community life, however, than in affairs of state or global governance. Politics is perhaps most of the time the clash between these two levels.17 It is my contention that we too often neglect this sphere of activity and relations, believing ourselves isolated, powerless individuals. In this respect, Arendt can inspire.

Most of the discussions in this book concern victims of political violence who have been harmed personally by acts of war, genocide, rape, ethnic discrimination, occupation, the murder of loved ones, or economic devastation. What constitutes “harm,” of course, is open to interpretation, as is suffering. The violent event that cripples one victim for life may not cripple another, as personal resources vary among individuals and alter perceptions of suffering. Victims may refuse the condition of victimhood. Cultural differences, politics, and law can all influence the meaning of victimhood. For the purposes of this book, I define a victim as one who has been intentionally harmed by another, either physically or psychologically, whether directly or indirectly through the suffering of a loved one. All of the examples I discuss involve victims who have experienced significant harm, that is, the infliction of unnecessary suffering without their consent.

Exposing and analyzing the violence of the victim, rather than of the perpetrator, is immediately subject to the criticism that one is playing into the hands of the enemy. If we focus on the violence of women against men, we are accused of failing to address the much graver problem of male violence against women. If we address what is referred to as “reverse discrimination,” we are criticized for not first dealing with the more pernicious phenomenon of discrimination, whether it be misogyny, white racism, or Western imperialism. Arendt was vilified for pointing out that Jewish leaders in Europe cooperated with the Nazis during the era of Nazi socialism. Although her comments were only a brief part of her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal convicted of war crimes against humanity, she was criticized and ostracized by the Jewish community for betraying her own people. But these criticisms only reinforce the pure innocence of the victim and the pure guilt of the perpetrator. Much of the time, the distinction is not so unambiguous. We certainly need to address state-sponsored and other forms of violence that clearly have power and resources at their disposal. I leave that work to others, with the caveat that victims often become the worst perpetrators of all. It is at our peril that we fail to understand, prevent, or mitigate the violence of victimhood.

Deconstructing the binary victim/perpetrator opposition is hardly sufficient for analyzing the current discourses on victimhood and their political effects, not to mention for understanding political conflicts that are in some way premised on an acceptance of this opposition. We must avoid at all costs a critical analysis of victimhood that leaves us floundering in the kind of moral relativism that claims we are all victims to some extent or other, all wounded and in need of redemptive outlets like resentment. Even if this were true in some fundamental sense, we are victims to different degrees. Some victims need our attention more urgently than others. Some victims need to have their psychological needs addressed before any consideration of punishment or demand for accountability. In other words, we must add to the critique of the victim/perpetrator dualism the concept and practice of merciful judgment.

I have divided this book into seven chapters, all of which build on a number of central arguments but address different issues. This work is unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries, which some readers will find liberating and others unsatisfying. Nor do I impose order along a theory and practice divide, choosing instead to shift back and forth between ideas and the events that shape them.

In chapter 1 I explore an ideology prominent in the “emancipatory” discourses of the North American academy. Scholarly interest in “the other” on the part of critical theorists, feminists, and antiracist scholars concerned with the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy has had an enormous impact on how we view the condition and status of the victim. The “post” discourses—postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism—are in large part responsible for rightly drawing attention to “the wretched of the earth” as well as problematically venerating “the other,” a veneration that ultimately robs the subaltern (the native, woman, “those who have no part”)18 of moral agency and responsibility. While there are a number of important intellectual and political sources of this veneration, I trace it to a tradition in what has come to be known broadly as continental philosophy, which has greatly influenced and been influenced by contemporary feminist scholarship. This veneration of the other has resulted from readings—or misreadings—of the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Frantz Fanon, among others, rendering the other a pure victim, beyond moral and epistemic reproach—a good other. Its undesirable effects include the abdication of politics for an impotent ethics; a reticence to make moral judgments in the name of sensitivity to cultures other than one’s own, both cultures rendered essentialist and immutable in their incommensurability; and an impoverished sense of justice—motivated by guilt or ressentiment, synonymous with retribution.

We are left with a bleak picture of political practice as policing and a moral judgment premised only on accepted ideological principles.19 A community of victims stand in judgment over those deemed responsible for their subordination. Justice becomes a matter of balancing the scales of suffering by making the perpetrator suffer as the victim has. Responsibility belongs solely to the perpetrator group. Yet no one has been able to establish why the view “from the margins” equips the victimized with a superior moral sensibility and power of judgment that others ostensibly lack on the grounds of their privilege.

In chapter 1, then, we witness the antagonistic dynamic between essentialized categories of privileged and oppressed—characterized by an incommensurable, nonreciprocal, morally unequal relationship—that theorists of difference promote. Ironically, it is a mirror image of the antagonism, essentialism, and moral reproach inherent in the circumstances that reduced an individual or group to inferior status to begin with. This irony is the point of departure in chapter 2, which elaborates a theme prevalent in Mahmood Mamdani’s analysis of the Rwandan genocide. Rather than privilege the view from the margins, Mamdani warns of the dangers of assuming the “worldview” of the victim, constructed as it is on the very hierarchical system politicized by the perpetrator. While a similar binary logic of victim versus perpetrator is evident in the identity politics of the West, the stakes are much higher in the context of violent conflict purported to be “ethnopolitical.” In the case of an intractable conflict like the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine—characterized by a severely asymmetrical power imbalance but also by the utmost conviction on both sides of a superior claim to victimhood and thus to truth, history, land, and a future state—the stakes are higher yet.

The focus of this second chapter is the troubling extent to which we often justify the violence of the victimized as a legitimate course of action, whether in the name of empowerment, self-determination, or—most often today—security. This is evident in analyses of Palestinian suicide bombing that justify killing on the basis of despair and misery, as well as in the American and Israeli governments’ reliance on a paradigm of security to legitimize a brutal military occupation. Here we witness the moral capital of the victim writ large, each side of the struggle firm in its conviction that it fights a just war. The Palestinians fight to end an occupation of more than sixty years, with its systematized, normalized inequality and disenfranchisement, impassioned by the collective memory of expulsion. The Israelis fight a war against terror and anti-Semitism, impassioned by the collective memory of genocide and persecution. The asymmetry of political power and economic well-being is often ignored by supporters of the Israeli government and used to add moral currency to the Palestinians’ position by those who act in solidarity with them.

Relying on the work of Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt to understand the nature of political violence, particularly in its emancipatory form, I conclude in this chapter that the violence of the victim is not a justifiable response to victimhood, nor is it as inevitable as we are led to believe. The unrelenting nature of violence and counterviolence, and the willful blindness to the binary logic of victim versus perpetrator, means that dissenting voices and the actions of those who do not comply are usually ignored. As in chapter 1, the view of politics here is bleak; “never again” is the mantra of a politics of death and destruction propelled by fear—or rather of a failure of politics, and a corresponding failure to take responsibility and exercise moral agency. The solutions can be found, I argue, in the work of countless individuals and groups who are not permitted the political tools necessary to make the leaps required for a viable future for all Palestinians and Israelis. Since it is the ideological framing of the conflict that blinds us to these solutions, it is our responsibility, as bystanders, to engage in conceptual reframing, not to impose peace plans or political solutions ourselves but to stop preventing Israelis and Palestinians from creating them.

The third chapter elaborates the subjective or psychic effects of victimization. I seek to provide a phenomenology of victimhood based on the narratives and analyses of Jean Améry, Susan Brison, Frantz Fanon, and others who have explored the condition of victimhood and the process of recuperating a sense of self after a traumatic experience. I discuss these writers in the context of a contemporary discourse on trauma in the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, feminism, anticolonialism, and military psychiatry. An overview of the “birth of trauma” demonstrates that we have moved from recognizing injury to naturalizing it, and to a universalization of pain and suffering that trivializes the meaning of trauma, rendering indistinguishable the experiences of those who survive genocide, rape, or sexual harassment. Historicizing the experience of victimhood makes it impossible to essentialize the condition of the victim—that victims respond in diverse ways to acts of violence and violation should not be neglected—but I point to a number of features that broadly constitute what it means to be victimized.

Despite the focus in chapter 3 on the psychic pain and suffering victims experience—the alienated consciousness, dehumanization, self-enslavement, “amputation,” or shattered self—I argue that our empathic regard must not preclude judgment or the acknowledgment of responsibility for wrongdoing when we consider the violence that victims themselves perpetuate. While Fanon stresses the agency of the colonized subject in the work of reversing the alienation he suffers, Améry dwells in a kind of melancholia, valorizing what Nietzsche calls ressentiment—resentment against those who tortured him in a Nazi camp and against the German people who enabled the Nazi regime to carry out genocide.

How do we arrest the evolution of grief into grievance before further violence occurs in the name of victimhood? Brison provides an answer, demonstrating that victims can eventually forget their victimization, to some extent, through the long and painful process of narration. Raped and nearly beaten to death, Brison describes the pain of displacement and exile from her own body as well as from the human community, but she recognizes that although the self can be destroyed by others, it is also created and sustained by them. The devastating loss of security her attacker caused is mitigated over time by her acceptance that absolute control over one’s life is never possible—we cannot escape our vulnerability—and by narrating the event into her past. The contrast between the reflections of Améry and Brison, however, points to the power of unconscious desires and motivations that render survival an individual matter. We are not all equal in our capacity to struggle and overcome.

The first three chapters throw into question the association of the victim with pure innocence and political incapacity or passivity, in effect accomplishing a deconstruction of the victim. They also demonstrate that this critical labor is not enough. We must do more than point out that victims and perpetrators are complex, the lines dividing them often blurry, or we are left with a perfect alibi for inaction. In chapter 4 I turn to Hannah Arendt for guidance in thinking through the provocative issue of responsibility and judgment with respect to the victim. Arendt was vilified and ostracized by her own friends, and by the Jewish community in general, for ostensibly “blaming the victim” in her controversial coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961. But her emphasis on collective historical responsibility, as well as individual moral responsibility for the future, victims notwithstanding, neither blames victims for their own misfortunes nor detracts from the necessary judgment against the worst atrocities humans can commit. Rather, I argue, it enables us to conceive of a political future in which the seemingly inevitable transformation of victim into victimizer might be suspended.

With Arendt’s help, we discover that moral judgments help us to create a world in which we want to live. Morality is not about following a moral code but about choosing with whom we want to live in proximity, and what kind of life we will share in our communities. We judge our own behavior in order to live with ourselves; we judge others in order to live among our fellow human beings and cultivate community in relative safety and trust. Accounting for our actions, acknowledging our freedom to make decisions and to act, and taking responsibility for this freedom are all inextricably linked to judgment. It is this careful discernment, derived as much from thinking, in concert with others, as from respect for others, that distinguishes judgment from the veneration described in the first chapter.

Chapter 5 plunges us into what I consider the toughest moral problem of this study: responding to the child soldier who is forced to kill or be killed. The suffering experienced by the tens of thousands of children in the world who currently live and kill within armed military groups cannot help but evoke an intense emotional response. We consider children, more than any other group in society, purely innocent. This is evident in the public response to several popular autobiographical accounts of “rehabilitated” child soldiers. And yet these children are capable of horrific acts of violence, prized by warlords for their fearlessness, conditioned to brutality. Here we reach the limits of personal responsibility, for some victims are purely innocent, although they must bear the burden of responsibility for their own responses to victimhood and for their own survival.

We must acknowledge, respect, and encourage children’s moral agency, like that of their adult counterparts, if we are to understand how war and violence seduces—and “narcotizes”—its participants, effectively immunizing them from accountability. Without this understanding, not only will international attempts to prevent child soldiering be ineffective but we will perpetuate the very victim/perpetrator binary logic that invited and forced children to kill in the first place. If we do not acknowledge that children and young adults often wish to fight, in the name of revenge, empowerment, or sheer survival, then we forfeit the possibility of formulating preventive strategies. But the tragedy of the child soldier also demonstrates the need for mercy and the limits of the law in its demand for responsibility, accountability, and punishment. It exposes a small blind spot in Arendt’s work on judgment, demanding a more prominent place for empathy and compassion than her stress on thinking and willing allows.

The excruciating predicament of the child soldier thus exacerbates a tension, exposed in the preceding chapters, between compassion and judgment. In chapter 6 I address this tension as it appears in a burgeoning “global justice industry” that is increasingly juridical and punitive in its approach to dealing with past atrocities and assumes that justice means retribution—an ideal of balance and reciprocity. The predominant paradigm of this industry is “transitional justice,” a global approach that many have criticized for its emphasis on criminal prosecution and a strictly legal understanding of justice that often comes at the price of peace. This paradigm has led to the expenditure of vast amounts of energy and resources—including millions of dollars—in the work of distinguishing victims from perpetrators in order to punish the latter and empower the former, especially through the International Criminal Court.20

Our response to atrocity cannot be limited to justice mechanisms. Death is irreversible; after genocide and war, the scales of justice cannot be balanced. Measures that are believed to foster reconciliation are offered as an alternative to the institutional, juridical approach to dealing with the past, motivated by forgiveness or a desire to judge wrongdoers with mercy. Notwithstanding the potential for political manipulation, forgiveness and mercy are useful in fleshing out the role of compassion in responding to victims. I argue in chapter 6 that the useful element of forgiveness is the will to forget, to the extent that we can release one another from the full consequences, sometimes tragic, of our actions for the sake of a more peaceful future. This approach is relevant also to a merciful judgment that acknowledges the wrongness of actions but also the circumstances in which they are carried out.

Compassion can appear to contradict the demands for moral judgment. Readers of Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical narrative are swept up in the force of their compassion for Beah, the boy forced to kill, and often spare little compassion for his victims, who remain nameless and faceless. Likewise, a sympathetic response to the despairing Palestinian refugee who straps a bomb to her chest and kills the innocent may blind one to the anguish of her injured victims and the dead victims’ loved ones. This is not compassion, I argue, but a pitiful regard that paralyzes thinking, excuses our unwillingness to judge, and robs the victim of agency. It is a regard that ignores the circumstances of the actor and sees all victims as equally responsible or equally innocent. Compassion in our response to the agents of atrocity must respect their agency. This is mercy as Martha Nussbaum defines it (relying on Seneca): mercy is not acquittal but a “gentle” judgment that yields before the difficulty of life.

In the final chapter I consider what it means to lay down one’s arms, articulating what a moral and political life that departs from security logic might look like. Responses to atrocity often miss the opportunity to develop civil society’s potential to engage in nonviolent politics, preoccupied as they are with legal judgment and social repair. Current political theorizing exhibits a similar tendency, failing to point out the potential of a political vision centered on principles of nonviolence and a culture of peace rather than a culture governed by the logic of militarization and security. Vulnerability is the human condition, but a politics that attempts to eliminate it only builds walls and weapon stocks, not community life.