Q: How can a people armed with home-made rockets be besieged, bombed, and slaughtered by a state actor — an appendix of Western civilization and one of the world’s best equipped armies — civilians be obviously targeted, UN food supplies burnt to the ground, and this have no political impact? Is it not a paradox of so-called Western civilization?
A: No. In Roman law, a homo sacer was a position conferred upon a person who could not be sacrificed according to ritual (because they were outside divine law) but may be killed by anybody (since they were outside juridical law). His/her death is, in both cases, of no value. The Italian philosopher Giorgoi Agamben picks up on the idea of homo sacer as a political category in modern times to apply it to people deemed outcasts through the operations of sovereign power. Because they fall outside the law — in modern times of the nation state — his/her biological life carries no political significance. For Agamben, political refugees as well as victims of the Holocaust fall into the category of homo sacer.
Agamben follows Hannah Arendt in her critique of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”. Arendt had two problems with the Declaration. First, that it rendered rights indistinguishable from the will of the nation-state and, following that, that it did not allow for the rights of those who fell outside this will. In other words, it did not grant any right to those who fell outside “the law.” The homo sacer. Or, what she elegantly calls, “human being in general.”
It is only through this logic that Palestinians can be turned into the objects of Israeli “techniques” for educating terrorists; that the death of more than 1300 Palestinians can be so swiftly swept off the news; that members of an elected government can fall outside the law and become (along with their families) normal targets to be eliminated, no questions asked; that even as images of dying Gazans move individuals of all religions and nationalities to tears, their deaths fail to acquire any political significance. Reducing it to racism alone is a reduction of the political position (or, “non-position”, as the case is) that the Palestinians find themselves in.
Those who compare the treatment of Palestinians today to the Nazi Holocaust err on some respects. The measure of hands-on cruelty and the numbers are not up for comparison. But on another, more instinctive level, the comparison holds. Palestinians, like the victims of the Holocaust, were subject to the same political operation that turned them into non-citizens, the rightful inhabitants of the sub-human conditions of the ghetto, objects of educational experiments. In short, Palestinians too are homo sacer.