Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

The Amalek Image

On the basis of the story of Amalek, radical evil can be defined as an intentional group attack on a collectivity of individuals, selected necessarily to be defenseless, but possibly also on the basis of other characteristics, with the aim of exterminating them. It is important to note that this definition does not take into consideration the justifications that the perpetrators might give for their act. It is assumed that, on the basis of the natural right of humans to life, such justifications are to be considered irrelevant. [8] Wars of aggression, genocide and terrorism are examples of such radical evil.

Its impact on victims is such as the impact of Rephidim on the Israelites. The perpetrators are seen though that act and are defined by it. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, and 9/11 are but some recent examples of the above. In all cases, one net result of the perpetrators' actions is the development of an Amalek image of themselves in the eyes of the victims. The Kuwaitis now see their Iraqi neighbors mainly through the prism of the horrors of the occupation. After ages of more or less peaceful, but certainly once fondly remembered coexistence, the last thing Bosnian Muslims now want is to live next door to the Serbs again. And 9/11 has created a seemingly unredeemably hostile image of Arabs and, more widely, Muslims in the eyes of the American public.

Obviously, it is the perpetrators themselves who are responsible for the creation of this "Amalek" image. But on the other hand, it goes without saying that such an image, like any reductionist representation, necessarily distorts reality. This does great disservice to the community the perpetrators are part of, for, unless we assume they are all evil (and this is doubtful even in the case of Amalek), it stands to reason they are not. But by the same token, it is incumbent on that community to show the Amalek perception is mistaken: by dissociating itself from the perpetrators, condemning them and bringing them to justice, expressing sympathy for the victims, offering moral and material compensation—and foremost making sure this does not happen again.

But to do so, the community must enjoy a modicum of liberty. The Iraqis are in no position to dissociate themselves from the crime their regime has committed and, until a measure of freedom is restored to them, we will never know if in fact they want to, or are indeed aware of that demand. Bosnian Serbs (and Serbs in Serbia) do enjoy that freedom. However, it would appearPage  192 that many of them either deny the crimes themselves ("all lies"), their particular responsibility ("it was a war and all sides did nasty things"), or the need for a reckoning ("we cannot be held responsible for the criminal acts of psychopaths and fanatics"). [9] While the first two reactions are usually given in obvious ill faith, the third is often genuine and can in fact be mistaken for the postulated dissociation from the perpetrators. But in this case the dissociation is to avoid the burden of responsibility, not to endorse it. It is not a step forward toward changing the Amalek image; it is a step back.

In the case of radical evil, this is a crucial issue. Because of its particularly heinous nature, radical evil has to be addressed by the perpetrators' community first through acknowledging it, and then by rejecting its perpetrators. The discourse has to be: "Yes, we did it. Now we condemn it. We pay homage to the victims and pledge never to permit this to happen again." Perhaps had Amalek the next day at Rephidim done something similar, the Torah would not contain the commandment to remember/obliterate his memory? It can be argued that Willy Brandt's gesture at the Warsaw Ghetto monument, where he unexpectedly knelt during the first state visit by a German chancellor since the war, made Polish-German reconciliation possible. On the other hand, the fact that no Croat Willy Brandt appeared to apologize to the Serbs for the wartime crimes of the Ustasha, helped convince Serbs that the Croats are unrepentant and ready to do it again if given a chance. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, Belgrade decided to make a preventive strike against the "successors of the Ustasha," thus plunging the country into bloody war. It should be noted that a Croat Willy Brandt could not have appeared for, under Tito and his successors, no one could speak in the name of the Croat nation, for any reason—such was the fear of the recrudescence of nationalism. This perverse mechanism produced in the end the very disaster it was trying to avoid.