So here is a final thought about the violence we have been discussing: Many find “the Afghan war” a continuing disaster. What is most striking about it? Certainly not the numbers of civilians killed. That is an old story and numerous civilian deaths will continue, and continue to be explained away, as long as the modern sovereign state exists and can use violence to promote its interests abroad.
11 September 2001 was neither the first nor the last atrocity since the Second World War in which the United States has been involved either as victim or (more often) as perpetrator. There is no sign that the human rights regime (including “humanitarian intervention”) can stop such atrocities; for although it can sometimes punish perpetrators of atrocities, it can do so only if they do not belong to powerful states and their friends.
Of course the ruthlessness of militants in general is evident as is the horror of modern war. But what I find particularly striking is something else: the inextricable combination of compassion and ruthlessness that is articulated in civilized war and absent in terrorism.
Modern sovereignty, whether expressed through killing in battle or the torture of suspects, brings together the desire to build up and the desire to destroy, to let Aid Agencies offer charity (in its original meaning of “love”) while the military offers death. The two are intrinsically connected.
On the one hand there is the satisfaction that many agents of sovereignty seem to obtain from displaying their tenderness towards human suffering; on the other hand there is the readiness, even eagerness, to kill and be killed for the sake of human values.