Who’s Your Favorite War Criminal?

emergency sign

Farah El-Sharif’s post on hand-picking war criminals (which you should read) has got me thinking recently. Especially in light of yesterday’s news-of-the-day; the release of the first Guantanamo videotape showing a 16 year-old Canadian kid. Farah rightfully points out the irony of Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir becoming the first current-leader to ever be called by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, while other butchers-of-mass-destruction are still free.

I am not going to argue about who the biggest war criminal of all is, simply because if Omar Al Bashir is the benchmark, then there are many who fit that criteria and have committed far worse crimes against humanity. Hint, most of them are white.

My argument veers off into more “unexplored” territory.

An interesting feature of political leadership philosophy is that of the state of exception. Under certain circumstances, political leaders can declare a “state of exception” or what is also referred to as a “state of emergency”. During this time, the leader has the authority to essentially do whatever he wants in the name of the greater good; usually in the name of national security. The people give him this power. Whether he is elected or he seizes power, the reaction of the people grants him legitimacy to do so. This is what makes the philosophy surrounding political leadership so damn interesting. Anything you’ve ever known about constitutions, balances of power, checks and balances, laws, everything, goes out the window. In there place are a million philosophical questions. We – the collective “we” – are replacing safeguards, mechanisms and even institutions with transient elements such as faith and trust. We trust that a leader will do what is in the best interest of all. We have faith that he will restore things back to normal when the emergency comes to an end. Ah. But who decides when that state-of-being ends and begins? Egypt has been in a state of emergency for over 25 years.

At the height of a conflict; in the midst of chaos; within a shroud of confusion and fog of uncertainty, the people will hand over power to a leader. It is perhaps fear that drives them in this moment, and their subsequent need to regain their sense of security.

We have done it before and we will do it over and over again.

In such a state, anything can happen.

leviathan thomas hobbes book

One of the greatest political thinkers of our time, Giorgio Agamben, spent a great deal of his lifetime unraveling and grappling with the problems inherent within declaring a state of exception. To quote:

“Agamben’s State of Exception investigates how the suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being. More specifically, Agamben addresses how this prolonged state of exception operates to remove individuals of their citizenship. When speaking about the military order issued by President George W. Bush on November 13, 2001, Agamben writes, “What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW’s as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws”.

Many of the individuals captured in Afghanistan were taken to be held at Guantánamo Bay without trial. These individuals were termed as “enemy combatants.” Until July 7, 2006, these individuals had been treated outside of the Geneva Conventions by the United States administration.

Agamben builds on his predecessor’s work, German political philosopher, Carl Shmitt:

“…according to Schmitt, frees the executive from any legal restraints to its power that would normally apply. The use of the term “exceptional” has to be underlined here: Schmitt defines sovereignty as the power to decide the instauration (establishment) of state of exception.

With this in mind…

If we hold true the articles of social contract political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that popular sovereignty rests with the people. If we hold true to their articles that suggest that it is therefore the people who instill this sovereignty unto a leader – a representative of the people – then who is held responsible. If we hold true to the fact that it is the leader who makes the decisions and that he is granted authority by the people to do so. The fact that his power remains unchallenged is an indication of the will of the people.

Are the people responsible for the crimes committed in their name?

Or is the system to blame?

…But one of Mr Khadr’s lawyers, Dennis Edney, said he hoped the video would cause an outcry in Canada and pressure Prime Minister Stephen Harper to demand that the US does not prosecute their client.

“I hope Canadians will be outraged to see the callous and disgraceful treatment of a Canadian youth,” Mr Edney told the Toronto Star. “Canadians should demand to know why they’ve been lied to.” [source]

Wars are the ultimate “state of exception” and in their presence, we – the collective “we” – have the tendency to do terrible things or allow for them to occur. Whether we commit those acts with our own bare hands, empower the people who make the decisions that allow for those acts to be committed, or even do it ourselves; the fact is, we allow for it to happen. We legitimize it. We legalize it. In fact, we demand it. Perhaps even in the name of revenge justice. Abu Ghreib happened because it was allowed. Guantanamo continues to happen, because it is allowed. Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Darfur. We choose these things. If sovereignty does in fact lie in the hands of the people, then we choose these things. Whether we elect or not; we are enablers, our actions (or lack of) dictate as much.

And so sometimes it’s quite arbitrary to live in a world we grapple over who is to blame; who is the worst war criminal.

All wars are a crime.


  • If sovereignty does in fact lie in the hands of the people, then we choose these things.

    But the fact is: sovereignty is not in the hands of the people. And what kind of sovereignty are we talking about? Nations are no longer soverign(Think Globalization), as such people in pseudo democracies(If you will) are everything but sovereign.

    Ma 3lena..

  • I am with you on this one Nas; I think we “the people” are responsible for whatever our leaderships venture or come across as, we are definitely part of that. I know that many people here in Britain, for example, are anti-war people, but deep down they still want their troops in Iraq and Aphganistan to win the war. And they still think of Tony Blair, Winston Churchil as their supreme idols. We all want strong powered people to take care of us – let ideologies aside, we want them there in the lead, to make sure our basic welfare is met and to give us that infantile-cave-aged feeling of safety and security. It should explain all the hypocrisy that we think renders many political situations. In the case of China, intervention by the west- and I know how much the west is dying to put their hands on China- remains anathema. Simply because of the importance and size of China, and for the fact that it is a powerful sovereign state. How much you should be able to protect national sovereignty in this crazy global age remains a dilemma- but for the western powerful countries, like the US and Britain it remains intact, and very much empowered by the consent of the people.

  • the key word here is sovereignty.
    I totally echo Muhannad; sovereignty is not in the hands of the people and yes with the consent of the people–be it fear or hypocrisy.
    however, consent doesn’t happen because the people openly and fully surrender their will and complete power to their leaders, but rather because this power to surrender has been exerted over them for many years by coercion.
    which leads to another key word, hegemony.
    it is obvious that states/leaders predominantly have been exercising their power over their people by making them consent forcefully through thinking that it’s for their best interest…
    which leads to a third key term, hegemony of sovereignty!
    brings us to the same point made over and over…
    such a vicious circle!
    to say the least, no. power is not in the hands of the individuals. It is totally in the hands of the State (aka leaders!)

  • sorry..but to address this generally: i disagree with the notion that the people are not sovereign. i think many have been lead to believe that due to the wide disconnect between citizen and government, especially in the third world. we forget that leaders, whether elected, inherited or self-appointed, exist because the people allow them to exist. they wield the power that people allow them to have. history has shown over and over again (and continues to do so till this day) how the people regain that power if they feel that a line has been crossed. from impeachments, to emergency elections to downright coup d’etat style, there are many moments in history and the on-going history where people have demonstrated this sovereignty in the sense of political power resting ultimately in their hands. Governments and leaders are overthrown somewhere every single year. Those moments may not be as responsive or consistent nor as automatic as we would like them to be at times, but they nevertheless exist.

    in democratic countries this power is easily demonstrated in elections. leaders are held accountable for what they do and say. they are like TV shows that exist only because the people like such shows, which forms a viewership, which increases advertising spots, etc. To suggest that the people have nothing to do with what’s on television and that the power all rests with the networks and developers who force it on the people, simply does not work.

    in authoritarian countries, every leader is backed. yes, in this case it is more hegemony: be it the affluent or (mostly) the military. nevertheless, people. not one person. people.

    if we look at the case of Bush’s presidency (for example), it is not out of the question that something along the lines of abu ghrieb would arise that would disgust the american public so greatly, that they would feel attacked at their very moral, bible-loving core, that they themselves would use the political mechanisms to hold him responsible and oust him. these mechanisms are available to them. the lack of movement therefore is something history, God, and/or the universe, will place the blame squarely on the people.

    the so-called political “realities” we perceive today are simply realities that have been imposed by governments to allow people to believe they have no real responsibility or role in government, other than the seemingly-arbitrary act of voting every few years. and in such moments we forget where true power rests and has always rested.

    the truth is that power does lie in numbers.

  • You speak of people as if they are a coherent integrated entity, while as a matter of fact they are not. You can take a look at our own society and the devisions that exits along many dimensions. Some thrive in the current arrangment while the majority try to mind their own business and focus on their daily life. Their sovereignty is in the education, the future, and the food they provide for their family. Also the thriving minority create an illusion for many that it is better the way it is, and that change is dangeorus. This minority not only controls the media, but also was succesfull in creating self censorship.

    And as I said before, maybe numbers used to work in the past, but for this time and age the power lies not in the people, but rather in what the people believe(Or made to beleive).

  • Mohanned: yes, i agree, things have changed. what has changed primarily is our belief in these fundamental truths and realities that are unchanging. what we have been made to believe does not erode the fundamental reality that power remains with the people; whether they know it or not, it’s there; like a gun they’ve forgotten to use, or perhaps, forgotten the power it ultimately possesses.

Your Two Piasters: