Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading
of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police
Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention
IRIS MARION YOUNG
In the spring of 1999 I was completing a book on democracy. Its arguments assume a basic commitment to democratic values—the rule of law, liberty, equal respect, and a desire to work out disagreement through discussion. Suddenly I was paralyzed in my work. With NATO bombs raining on Yugoslavia, reflection on the essentially nonviolent values of democracy felt irrelevant at best and arrogantly privileged at worst.
While living in Vienna in 1998 I had followed with horror the escalating attacks by Serbian soldiers on both armed and unarmed Albanian Kosovars, which seemed more immediate there than they had in the United States. Thus in the early months of 1999 I had hoped that the negotiations including the United States, Western European countries, Russia, and Yugoslavia would succeed in stopping this violence. When European negotiators delivered their final offer and it was rejected by Yugoslavia, for a few days I swallowed the self-righteous rhetoric of United States and European leaders, and I approved of the NATO war.
When it became clear that the war made the Serbian army more able and willing than before to force the flight of hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars, and that NATO had foreseen these consequences without planning a response to them, I was dumbstruck. When it further appeared that NATO’s strategy was to target civilians and cripple the economy of an entire country, I was overcome with shame and rage. Obsessed with this war and the fact that it was being waged by nineteen of the world’s democracies, none of which had consulted with their citizens, I felt impelled to think about violence. But where could I turn to help me think? In this moment of rupture I reopened one of the only