Toxic Medicine

By Reeves-Evison, Theo | Soundings, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Toxic Medicine


Reeves-Evison, Theo, Soundings


Toxic medicine Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, Verso 2011

A complex equation (Q=l-[q In q + 1/q In 1/q) adorns the first page of Eyal Weizman's The Least of All Possible Evils, partially obscured by a middle-aged man named Itzhak Ben Israel. A professor of physics at the university of Tel Aviv, Ben Israel's equation analyses the entropie behaviour of gas molecules in order to calculate the most efficient means of destroying Hamas by killing or kidnapping its operatives.

Later on in the book we are introduced to several other ratios and formulae. We learn of the 'surgical form of destruction' employed by allied forces in Iraq, so that fewer that thirty civilians were killed for every military or political target, as well as the equation used by the Israeli military to calculate the time it would take for the population of Gaza to die of starvation. Although these formulae are undoubtedly chilling, what is significant about them is not the levels of precision or abstraction they embody, but rather the logic of moderation incorporated into their calculus. The 'less than 30 rule' is in fact the rule set by International Humanitarian Law, which means that by keeping below the threshold British and American troops were able to carry out attacks under the banner of humanitarian intervention, safeguarding the right to commit collateral murder with a veneer of ethical probity.

The justification for war is often presented as a Hobson's choice between a necessary evil and doing nothing and thus letting millions die. The first section of Weizman's book is dedicated to tracing the genealogy of this discursive strategy, unearthing its theological roots in the work of St Augustine and Leibniz. For both thinkers divine government entailed a calculating God, ceaselessly weighing good against evil in a finite moral economy. According to Leibniz, God conducted these calculations in order to ensure the 'best of all possible worlds', which for Leibniz served to explain the presence of evil and disaster as necessary prerequisites for 'the good'. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and we arrive at a similar economic conception of morality, in which the lives of parents can be measured against those of their children. If war is an inevitable fact of human existence, so the argument goes, then we may as well choose 'the best of all possible wars'. The only problem is that this ensures the indefinite continuation of war itself.

In order to establish 'proportionate' levels of violence, an army of technical, medical and legal specialists is required to calculate and establish the necessary thresholds. The justified focus of Weizman's critique is collusion between military power and human rights organisations, which in recent years have shared an increasing amount of information and equipment with government forces. This new paradigm was perhaps best summed up by Colin Powell, who once said that 'NGOs and relief workers are "a force multiplier for us ... an important part of our combat team"' (p52).

One of the chapters that form the empirical core of this book deals with the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. Weizman positions the disaster as a transformative episode for humanitarian organisations, which began to rely heavily upon military and political powers in order to distribute aid during the crisis. Out of this context emerges the character of Rony Brauman, then president of Médecins Sans Frontières. Like many other aid organisations in Ethiopia at the time, MSF distributed food and medicine from relief centres whose location was determined by the Ethiopian government. Due to the sheer numbers arriving at the camps, as soon as the refugees had been given aid and medical supplies they were rounded up by the Ethiopian military at gunpoint and moved on to new settlements in the south. Figures from the time estimate that between 50,000 and 100,000 died as a result, and, in a loaded comparison, Brauman came to see his role as lying somewhere between Adolf Eichmann and the Jewish councils during the Second World War.

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