Eyal Weizman’s most recent book The Least of all Possible Evils presents its reader with a smorgasbord of disciplinary approaches (as opposed to deli meats). On this board one finds Weizman eloquently stringing together French satire, Christian theology, political activism, forensics, fetishism, and legal theory (and those are just a few of the juiciest bits). Though The Least of all Possible Evils goes much further in its interdisciplinary approach than Weizman’s previous book Hollow Land, it shares certain key characteristics. Both works grew out of an artistic exhibition, both examine crisis through an engagement with spatial politics, and both hold the Israel-Palestine conflict at their proverbial heart. However, to write off The Least of all Possible Evils as excessively eclectic would be to miss its ever-present political agenda that admonishes the violence spawned by the justificatory principle of ‘lesser evil.’
Weizman historically situates the principle of ‘lesser evil’ within Western ethical philosophy and Christian theology before delving into three instantiations that highlight its contemporary transformation. The first of these is the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s that brought the idea of humanitarianism into crisis in a very public way (which Weizman fleshes out via the internal debate of Médecins Sans Frontière about the extent of their intervention). The second is the 2004 trial of the Israeli separation wall in Israel’s High Court. Here Weizman shows how the doctrine of proportionality indirectly worked to legitimize the separation wall and its role in the Israeli occupation. Finally, there is the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009, where forensic architectural analysis of the ruins left behind was employed in order to reconstruct how the violence unfolded. This effectively displaced victim testimony for a supposedly more objective and scientific account. Interwoven throughout these three examples are instances of damaging legal and ethical equivocations—whether through putting a wall on trial instead of a person, justifying murder by transforming victims into symbols within an equation to calculate ‘risk,’ or replacing witness testimony with material forensics.
Weizman’s elaborations on this trifecta of contemporary ‘lesser evil’ moments almost reads like heroic adventure novels with eccentric protagonists. There is the crusader, Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontière, who navigated (with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in hand) the polemics of humanitarianism gone awry. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Brauman and his fellow humanitarians were faced with an impossible choice: that of becoming inadvertent accomplices to the Ethiopian regime’s practice of forced migration, or risk expulsion (and consequently responsibility for mass starvation) by speaking out against it. Then there is Muhammad Dahla, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian lawyer, whose ingenuity in exposing the nefarious motivations behind the so-called militaristic necessity of the location of the Israeli separation wall ended in the victorious ruling of relocating 30km of the wall. Dahla’s conscience however was tormented by the ways in which his mere engagement in the trial, not to mention the victory of its partial relocation, validated the existence of the wall itself. Villain turned hero turned pariah, Marc Garlasco was the former intelligence analyst for the US Defense Intelligence Agency responsible for selecting lesser evil targets according to an assessment of proportionality. He then became a forensic architect for Human Rights Watch as its senior military analyst and expert in battle damage assessment. Like all heroes with a bad past, Garlasco is prone to being easily misunderstood. According to Weizman, the same objective detachment, that allows Garlasco to have a keen eye for restringing the ways violence was wrought in Gaza through the ruins it left behind, is the same fetishistic quality that would lend him to becoming a collector of Nazi paraphernalia, i.e. relics from a different atrocity.
Alongside these heroes, Weizman gives us corresponding damsels in distress—the Ethiopians who were made more vulnerable to forced relocation and were denied the right of movement by entering into refugee camps, the Palestinian farmers whose land was displaced from them through the construction of Israel’s separation wall, and the Gazans who were starved, neglected, and massacred in a premeditated way that ensured it would fall just short of shocking the world.
Weizman’s use of the objective spatial dimension works to show how militaristic and politically interventionist violence is reified and obscured in an economy of calculations and management based on objective legal and forensic tenants. During the trial of a material object, namely the wall (and not the architects of the project), the materiality of the wall’s scale model worked to displace the subjective individuals responsible for it’s implementation. In the Ethiopian famine crisis, Weizman speaks about how refugee camps reflect a corruption of political space. This fabricated extraterritorial humanitarian space for Weizman is a bubble, a non-place, which is governed in such a way that the political capacity for self-government is foreclosed. This governed space is a causality of a destructive event, a famine crisis for instance. Weizman leaves us with the consideration that once the space of the refugee camp is understood as a site of destruction, then the destruction of a refugee camp like Gaza can be understood as ‘the destruction of destruction’. True to the spatial configuration that Weizman employs to couch his argument, he proposes what one might call a politics of construction as an alternative to engaging in the principle of ‘lesser evil’, a principle that when understood in spatial terms permits a little destruction for the preservation of the greater good. Just as the scale model of the Israeli separation wall was an introduction of a novel physical pretense, previously unaccounted for, which worked to disrupt the traditional power relations of the courtroom, Weizman leaves the reader with a provocation to rebuild and construct physical realities out of sites of destruction that, while imperfect, can work to support the political rights of the former damsels in distress without relying on the heroism of lesser evil proponents.
For further information check out an interview Mike Schapira and I were fortunate enough to conduct with Eyal Weizman on Full-Stop.net.