Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building

By Tobias Kelly; Sharika Thiranagama | Go to book overview

Introduction: Specters of Treason

Tobias Kelly and Sharika Thiranagama

The English novelist E. M. Forster once wrote that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” (1972, 66). Forster’s claim seems particularly provocative, given that it was written in 1939, on the eve of World War II, a time when accusations of treason could have deadly implications. Yet for Forster personal bonds of love and friendship were to take priority over the demands of state and nation. At a personal level, Forster’s claim should almost certainly be read in terms of the criminalization of homosexuality in early twentieth-century Britain. It cannot be surprising if loyalty to lovers and confidantes overrides allegiance to a discriminatory legal regime. However, at the same time, Forster also recognized that the demands of one’s country can be hard to resist. It is not clear if the courage he asks for is bravery in the face of the coercive power of the state or moral fortitude to make an ultimately difficult ethical decision.

The tension among intimate personal relationships, the demands of states, and the hard moral choices that these produce are at the heart of this book. Traitors are rarely, if ever, simply venal or self-interested, and accusations of treachery are seldom self-evident. Rather, treason is a product of often contradictory social and political obligations. As Forster reminds us, we are never simply citizens or friends but always and necessarily both at the same time. As we try to negotiate our multiple allegiances, we must balance competing demands on our loyalty. In this context, any act of treachery can also be a potential act of loyalty to another cause. The guilt or innocence of traitors is, therefore, never clear-cut, as competing moral values make often-conflicting demands. Treachery is reproduced in the “gray zones” of political life, destabilizing the rigid moral binaries of victim and persecutor, friend and enemy.

Despite or even because of the ethical ambiguity of treason, accusa-

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