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Journal of Global Ethics

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Notes on violence: Walter Benjamin's relevance for

the study of terrorism
Verena Erlenbusch
To cite this article: Verena Erlenbusch (2010) Notes on violence: Walter Benjamin's relevance
for the study of terrorism, Journal of Global Ethics, 6:2, 167-178
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Published online: 13 Aug 2010.

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Date: 30 November 2016, At: 10:00

Journal of Global Ethics

Vol. 6, No. 2, August 2010, 167 178

Notes on violence: Walter Benjamins relevance for the study of terrorism

Verena Erlenbusch
Centre for Social and Political Thought, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
This article uses Walter Benjamins theoretical claims in the Critique of violence to shed
light on some current conceptualisations of terrorism. It suggests an understanding of
terrorism as an essentially contested concept. If the theorist uncritically adopts the states
account of terrorism, she occludes an important dimension of the phenomenon that allows
for a rethinking of the states claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence. Benjamins
essay conceptualises the state as resulting from a conjunction of violence, law, legitimacy
and power that rests on mythical ideas about nature and history. It shows why the state
claims to be justified in taking exceptional measures when this link is challenged and when
its prerogative to the legitimate use of force is called into question. This, I argue, is what
terrorism does. Thus, Benjamins essay adds to a more nuanced and less one-sided
understanding of both terrorism and state violence.
Keywords: Benjamin; violence; terrorism; legality; legitimacy

When is violence legitimate?

The task of a critique of violence, Walter Benjamin opens his essay Critique of violence1
(1921), can be summarized as that of expounding its relation to law and justice (Benjamin
1997, 132). More than that, I want to suggest in the following paragraphs, what is at issue in
Benjamins text is the relationship between violence, law, legitimacy and power. It also provides
an explanation for Benjamins declaration in The right to use force (1920) that there is a
contradiction in principle between the state and the idea of morality (Benjamin 1996c, 233).
The Critique of violence, therefore, constitutes more than a historico-philosophical view of
law (Benjamin 1997, 134). Rather, it must be read as an attack on the state that, as the effect
of a complex and problematic nexus of natural necessity, law, violence and power, forecloses
the possibility of freedom and morality.
Benjamins reading against the grain of the relation of violence to law is particularly
valuable in a time when the link between legality, legitimacy, violence and state power is
called into question by outbursts of violence that challenge the states claim to have a monopoly
on legitimate violence. This, I want to argue, is what happens in instances of terrorism.
The aim of this article is, therefore, to examine the discursive portrayal of terrorism by governments and mainstream media as an illustration of Benjamins analysis of state power. The
hypothesis guiding this inquiry is that the state has to impose a certain understanding of terrorism
against other contesting interpretations. To do so, it has to successfully portray a particular form
of violence as terrorism. However, this can be understood as an attempt to reaffirm the bond that
tethers the legitimate use of violence exclusively to the state.
If we uncritically adopt the states view of terrorism within an academic discourse, we
implicitly side with governments against those who contest their claim to have a monopoly


ISSN 1744-9626 print/ISSN 1744-9634 online

# 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17449626.2010.494363


V. Erlenbusch

on legitimate violence. In order to establish a more nuanced conceptual and theoretical

framework for an interpretation of terrorism, I will first outline some reflections on the Critique
of violence concerning the latent authoritarian tendencies of liberal democratic states that are
most visible in emergency legislation and the curtailing of constitutional rights.
Benjamin begins his critique with an examination of the relationship between violence and
law. According to Benjamin, in our age one cannot be thought without the other. This, he
suggests, necessarily results in a conceptualisation of violence in terms of means and ends.
Two problems arise for Benjamin: first, violence cannot be seen as an end. Secondly, if violence
is judged as a means, this has to be done in a framework of just or unjust ends. But such a framework would result in an evaluation of violence with regard to different instances of its use, rather
than in a judgment of violence itself as a principle. In order to overcome this problem, Benjamin
seeks to establish a criterion that distinguishes within the sphere of means themselves, without
regard for the ends they serve (Benjamin 1997, 132).
Natural law, which regards violence as a justified means if its ends are just, can thus not serve
as a starting point for Benjamins inquiry. Positive law, which sees violence as a product of
history that is justified if it is recognised as legal regardless of its ends, proves to be more
useful. Positive legal theory distinguishes between historically acknowledged and, thus, sanctioned and legitimate violence and unsanctioned illegitimate violence. But what, Benjamin
asks, is the meaning of this distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence? And in
what sphere can it be made?
Again it is positive legal theory that Benjamin invokes to answer these questions. Here, violence is legitimate if its ends are historically acknowledged and rendered as legal ends. Opposed
to these are unacknowledged, natural ends whose violent pursuit is not covered by the law and
thus appears as illegitimate. His observation of contemporary European developments leads
Benjamin to the conclusion that the law seeks to identify all natural ends that are pursued
violently, with legal ends. In other words, the law disallows violence as a means to achieve individual ends; instead, it erects a system in which these ends can be pursued with sanctioned, nonviolent means. To illustrate this claim, Benjamin refers to the sphere of education where
violence for natural ends is admitted in principle, but restricted if pursued too violently by
laws determining the limits of educational authority to punish. The reason for this, Benjamin
states, is that the law sees violence in the hands of individuals as a danger undermining the
legal system (Benjamin 1997, 135). Therefore, the laws defense of its monopoly on violence
stems from the fact that violence outside the law threatens the law itself. In Benjamins words,
violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue, but by
its mere existence outside the law (Benjamin 1997, 136). This is due to a twofold function of
violence as law-making and law-preserving. With regard to the former, the example of the strike
shows that even when violence is permitted in the legal system, in times of crisis i.e. revolutionary general strike the state reserves for itself the right to intervene. Such intervention is
triggered precisely by the potential of a revolutionary general strike to modify or even found
legal conditions. This law-making function of violence is also discernible in military law that
requires a ceremony for the victor of a war to mark the establishment of a new law for the vanquished. Concerning the law-preserving function of violence, Benjamin gives the example of
conscription. Here, violence is employed for legal rather than natural ends in the service of
the state.
While the threat of law-making violence for the legal system is evident, the menace of lawpreserving violence is less obvious. How can violence that is exercised in the name of the law
threaten this very law itself? This seeming paradox comes to the fore in capital punishment or the
police where the distinction between law-making and law-preserving violence is suspended.
Capital punishment does not punish an infringement of the law, but rather reaffirms the law.

Journal of Global Ethics


The police, while pursuing legal ends with law-preserving violence, have, at the same time, the
authority to define these ends to a large extent. The police intervene for security reasons in
countless cases where no clear legal situation exists (Benjamin 1997, 141).
All violence is, therefore, law-making or law-preserving or, in the worst case, both. It is consequently always already implicated in the problematic nature of law itself (Benjamin 1997,
142 about which more below). To overcome this problem, Benjamin seeks to identify a
form of conflict resolution by non-violent or pure means. He finds examples in the private
sphere (above all language) and in the political realm (such as the proletarian strike and diplomacy). However, even these non-violent means have been restricted by the state that feels threatened by reactive violence that might result from them. Since the solution of conflicts seems
impossible without any form of violence and since violence permitted by natural and positive
law is implicated in the problems of law tout court, Benjamin asks for other kinds of violence
than those envisaged by legal theory. In other words, Benjamin seeks to identify a form of violence that is non-mediate, i.e. that is not related as a means to a predetermined end.2 Such a form
of violence, it would seem, can be found in everyday life in the manifestation of anger. In a more
objective form that can be subjected to criticism, such non-mediate violence appears in myth.
In myth, violence is exercised as a manifestation of fate that is embodied by the gods. Benjamin
illustrates this idea by referring to Niobe, grandchild of Zeus, wife of Amphion King of Thebes,
and mother of seven sons and seven daughters. Driven by pride and arrogance, Niobe insults
Leto as being of obscure parentage, with a mannish daughter and a womanish son (Graves
1992, 259). As a manifestation of her anger over Niobes conduct, Leto sends her children
Artemis and Apollo to kill Niobes children and husband, while Niobe herself is turned into a
rock by Zeus (Graves 1992).
In Benjamins interpretation, the violent intervention of Apollo and Artemis on Letos behalf
does not constitute Niobes punishment, but rather the founding of a law. Niobes arrogance, he
explains, calls down fate upon itself not because her arrogance offends against the law but
because it challenges fate to a fight in which fate must triumph, and can bring to light a
law only in its triumph (Benjamin 1997, 148). Benjamin thereby takes up a theme from the
earlier fragment Schicksal und Charakter (Fate and character, 1919) and postulates a link
between fate, myth, violence and law.3
In Fate and character, Benjamin expounds his concept of fate by situating it in relation to
guilt and misfortune. While the notion of fate usually pertains to a religious sphere, Benjamin
claims that its order can, in fact, not be a religious one. The reason is, according to Benjamin,
that fate is always thought of in terms of guilt, but never with regard to innocence and redemption. Rather, the order of fate is the order of law. Characterising law as a residue of the demonic
stage of human existence (Benjamin 1996a, 203), law appears for Benjamin as the realm of
natural, demonic necessity. Put simply, law represents the realm in which fate understood as
natural necessity is manifested. Every pronouncement of the law is, therefore, by default also
a pronouncement of fate. In other words, by capturing fate qua natural inevitability, law confines
man within a framework of natural necessity. It does so by repeatedly striking what is natural in
man, i.e. his mere natural life. Law is thus not part of an ethical order. It does not lift man out of
the natural order of necessity, but entrenches human existence in it.4 The Critique of violence
repeats this understanding of fate as the realm of natural necessity to which what exists, and in
particular what threatens, belongs (Benjamin 1997, 140). In myth, fate manifests itself in the
form of an intervention of the gods, and it establishes law as its representative.
For a critique of violence, this foundation of legal violence in myth has an important consequence. Power is revealed as the true end of law, and violence takes the character of a performative that guarantees and reinforces power. The mythical foundation of law5 discloses the
nexus between fate and law and, Benjamin claims, between law and power. As Salzani explains,


V. Erlenbusch

(t)he Greek gods epitomise here natural history and their immediate violence . . . proves [. . .]
identical to lawmaking violence . . . and establishes power as law (Salzani 2008, 28). Power
is that in which the link between law-making and law-preserving violence and lastly between
violence and law is established. Thus, even though mythical violence is immediate, it is far
from constituting a pure form of violence. On the contrary, it shows itself as identical, indeed
as the basis of all legal violence.
In short, if the mythical gods are a cipher for nature and if mythical violence exercised by the
gods instantiates power as the guarantor of all legal violence (cf. Salzani 2008), then the law is
inevitably tethered to the natural realm and cannot apply to anything but to mans natural life. As
a consequence, for Salzani, the mythic appears as the prison of a life reduced to natural life,
whereas the ethical sphere is envisaged as a breaking from the daemonic complex of myth-fateguilt which is proper to natural life (Salzani 2008, 27).
It is thus clear why the law as a whole is problematic for Benjamin. Mythical violence establishes law, and as a result, the law and all legal violence are underpinned by fate. All laws pertain
to fate that is manifested in myth and understood as a condition of natural necessity. Consequently, every judgment in the name of the law repeats and reinforces a view of man in terms
of natural life. As the telos of law, power rests on the exercise of legal violence over mere
life and lacks any notion of a more just life. As the guarantor of law, power decides on the legality of violence. In other words, power is asserted and reinforced through the exercise of legal
violence that appears as legitimate by being tethered to an order of natural necessity. Put simply,
what is legal is legitimate because it is perceived as natural and inevitable.
This understanding of legal violence reveals the perniciousness of its historical function
(Benjamin 1997, 150). In Benjamins words:
Here (i.e. in the establishing of frontiers) we see most clearly that power, more than the most extravagant gain in property, is what is guaranteed by all law-making violence. Where frontiers are
decided the adversary is not simply annihilated; indeed, he is accorded rights even when the
victors superiority in power is complete. And these are, in a demonically ambiguous way,
equal rights: for both parties to the treaty it is the same line that may not be crossed. Here
appears, in a terribly primitive form, the same mythical ambiguity of laws that may not be infringed
to which Anatole France refers satirically when he says, Poor and rich are equally forbidden to
spend the night under the bridges. It also appears that Sorel touches not merely on a culturalhistorical but also on a metaphysical truth in surmising that in the beginning all right was the
prerogative of the kings or the nobles in short, of the mighty; and that, mutatis mutandis, it will
remain so as long as it exists. (Benjamin 1997, 149 50)

In short, legal violence always plays into the hands of the powerful. The equality underlying
rights is merely abstract and ignores the differential positions of power of those individuals who
are the subject of rights. Promoting abstractly equal rights therefore conceals their being product
of a law that secures power. Rights are conceded by the mighty and as such constitute and protect
privileges of the powerful. What is more, if rights are granted by the law but the law is revealed
as the exercise of legal violence, then there is no right. And the only meaning of equality is that
of equally great violence (Benjamin 1997, 150).
The state, which is defined in The right to use force as the supreme organ of the law (231),
is exposed by Benjamin as the effect of the nexus of myth (as being the expression of fate or
nature), law, and violence in the Critique of violence. For Benjamin, the state is, in fact, dependent on an idea of history as the unfolding of natural necessity. It is therefore devoid of any
ethical dimension. For an assertion of morality and a notion of humanity and life that does
not give up on an idea of freedom, the link between fate, law and violence must be cut, and
the state must be abolished.
For Benjamin, this is precisely what divine violence does. As opposed to mythical violence,
divine violence is law-destroying; it escapes from the cycle of means and ends, blasts open the

Journal of Global Ethics


continuous alternation of law-making and law-preserving violence, and abolishes state power
(Benjamin 1997). Divine violence emerges as the condition of possibility for Benjamins
notion of politics: My definition of politics: the fulfilment of an unimproved humanity.
(Benjamin 1996b, 266)
The necessity of a historico-philosophical understanding of violence can now be explained
with hindsight. From a point of view that is temporally limited to our age, history appears as the
cyclical alternation of law-making and law-preserving violence as derivatives of mythical violence. This is problematic because it enshrines a view of life as purely natural and negates the
possibility of a more just life and of morality and freedom. On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law, Benjamin explains, on the suspension of law with all the
forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state
power, a new historical epoch is founded (Benjamin 1997, 153).
To be sure, the Critique of violence presents a broader argument about the entanglement of
fate, myth, violence, law, and power and the subsequent reductionist focus of politics on life as
the natural part in man. More than that, I would argue, the text functions as part of Benjamins
political philosophy and historiography. For the remainder of this article, however, I want to
zoom in on the relationship between violence, legality, legitimacy and power and to outline
how Benjamins theoretical claims are illustrated by governments attempts to render as terrorism forms of violence that are uncovered by state authority and challenge the states prerogative
to legitimate violence.
To reiterate, for Benjamin fate is a cipher for natural necessity. The place where fate is
expressed is myth; more precisely, in mythical violence as the establishment of law that
secures power. In other words, mythical violence is a manifestation of fate that establishes
the link between law, violence and power. The state can, therefore, be conceptualised as the
effect of power6 and the embodiment of fate-imposed, hence legal, and legitimate violence.
Despite its allegedly enlightened and secular character, this nexus constitutes the basis of political form in liberal democratic modernity.
Disclosing the contradictions of legitimacy
The question guiding the following reflections is what happens when, in Euro-Atlantic
democracies in late modernity, the state as the epitome of legal violence is questioned, and
the perceived unity of legal and legitimate violence in the state is challenged. Put simply,
how does the state react when its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is called into
My suggestion is that Benjamins Critique of violence can help to answer this question.
Benjamin points to strike and explains that the state tries to protect its exclusive claim to violence by way of proclaiming emergency measures. This idea of a state of emergency is taken
up in the eighth of the Theses on the philosophy of history (1939), in which Benjamin
states that (t)he tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which
we live is not the exception but the rule (Benjamin 1970, 259). The state of emergency in
which Benjamin lived was the suspension of the Weimar constitution by the NSDAP. But
rather than constituting an exceptional measure, Benjamin claims, this recourse to the suspension of the law is the rule7 as can be seen, for example, in the case of strike.
In what follows, I want to put Benjamins insights from the Critique of violence into the
service of an analysis of acts of violence that is at the current historical conjuncture referred
to as terrorism. The states response to terrorism in the form of emergency legislation and the
suspension of constitutional rights presuppose a particular understanding of terrorism as illegitimate violence that threatens peoples security. Only if state violence is affirmed as the only


V. Erlenbusch

form of legal and legitimate violence, can measures such as torture, pre-emptive strike, mass
surveillance, or severe restrictions of civil liberties be justified.
Let me add a brief caveat: I do not want to suggest that terrorism represents a case of divine
violence. What I am surprised by is the fact that states can claim to kill legitimately in a way and
to an extent that far exceeds the so-called terrorist attacks. I am interested in why and how definitions of violence as a War on Terror, as terrorism always already contain its evaluation as
good or bad, legitimate or illegitimate. As Judith Butler points out, if the judgment is part and
parcel of the definition, then we are, in fact, judging before knowing (Butler 2009, 155).
Against this conflation of the normative and the descriptive, I want to offer a perspective on violence that does not attempt to justify terrorism but aims to problematise allegedly legitimate state
violence. The concern guiding what follows is not what form of violence terrorism constitutes,
but what the representation of certain acts of violence as terrorism, as well as their violent
combat, tells us with regard to state violence.
What is today called terrorism is by no means a monolithic phenomenon. Rather, since the
inception of a discourse of terrorism in Revolutionary France in 1794, its interpretation and
meaning are contested. Especially since the second half of the nineteenth century, however,
the prevailing understanding of terrorism is such that it fixes the identity of the terrorist to
non-state political actors who engage in anti-state violence which is deemed eo ipso as illegitimate.8 The successful establishment of this discourse that proliferates in government documents, newscasts, as well as large parts of academia and has suffused everyday speech
enables governments to reaffirm the situation in which the state has exclusive control over
legality, legitimacy, and violence. One consequence of this is that it allows governments to
justify measures that would otherwise lack legitimacy against a terrorist threat. What I want
to suggest is that the state designates a particular form of violence as terrorism in order to
impose its exclusive entitlement to the use of force. In other words, governments attempts
to portray violence against the state and the law as terrorism have to be understood as an
effort to reaffirm the link between the state and legitimate qua legal violence. This link,
which Benjamin argues is established by mythical violence and constantly reaffirmed by
cycles of law-making and law-preserving violence, is jeopardised by violence that claims to
be legitimate, but cannot be perceived as such by the state without jettisoning its own legitimacy. The struggle over the meaning of terrorism brings to light the fragility of the nexus
between violence, law, legitimacy, and power. Why, we might want to ask, was the dropping
of an atomic bomb on innocent Japanese civilians presented as legitimate by U.S. administration and mainstream media, but the bombing of a U.S. federal building killing equally innocent civilians as illegitimate? What, to begin with, is the meaning of innocence in this context?
And what can be inferred from the suspension of laws and civil rights not just with regard to
those who count as terrorists, but to anyone who might potentially be a terrorist and thus to the
population in general?
As has been outlined above, the difficulties of a critique of state power result from the
binding of legal violence to the state, a relation Benjamin thinks is based on the idea of fate
as expressed in myth. Indeed, the mythical basis of state power theorised by Benjamin seems
to function as the justificatory backdrop in cases in which the legitimacy of political rule is contested. The enduring relevance of Benjamins theoretical claim is illustrated by a way of looking
at violence from the point of view of those who are deemed terrorists. While from the states
perspective only state violence is perceived as legal and legitimate, those who are identified
by the state as terrorists repudiate the states claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence as
based on mythical perceptions of statehood. A paradigmatic example is the way in which the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) construe Sinhalese state violence. As Velupillai
Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, explains:

Journal of Global Ethics


The Sinhala nation is refusing to broaden its thinking and take a new approach. The Sinhala
nation remains mislead by the mythical ideology of the Mahavamsa and remains trapped in
the chauvinistic sentiments thus created. Unable to free itself from this mindset, it has
adopted Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic notions as its dominant national philosophy. This notion
is spread in its schools, universities and even its media. The domination of this Sinhala Buddhist
chauvinism is preventing its students, intellectuals, and writers from stepping out of and thinking
free from its domination. This, unfortunately, is preventing the Sinhala nation from undertaking a
genuine attempt at resolving the Tamil national question in a civilized manner (Prabhakaran

On this account, the Sinhalese regimes denial of Tamil independence is not based on actual
historical, but on mythical perceptions of statehood and domination. Rather than recognising and
learning from the past coexistence of different ethnic kingdoms, mythical ideas about the foundation of the state are anchored in a historiography of natural necessity that precludes any possibility of Tamil independence. In other words, if Sinhalese dominance is foreseen by fate, then
Tamil independence is just not an option. As a result, violent struggles for a Tamil state necessitated counter-action by the Sri Lankan government. This response was justified by rendering
Tamil militancy as terrorism and acknowledged in an international arena through the classification of the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States. This process of
naming itself further substantiates Benjamins theoretical claims.
In a thorough historical analysis of the politics of naming the LTTE (Nadarajah and Sriskandarajah 2005), the authors show how the Sri Lankan government deployed the discourse of terrorism for the purpose of legitimising its own violent actions. Not only did the successful equation
of Tamil militancy against Sinhalese dominance with terrorism delegitimise the Tamil independence struggle inside and outside Sri Lankas borders, but also strengthened the Sri Lankan governments legitimacy by securing international support and mobilising the non-Tamil population.
Moreover, the discourse of terrorism allowed for the securitisation of the state.
Let me try to spell out this point more clearly. What the example of Sri Lanka underscores is
the emergence of a discourse of terrorism that allows governments to identify and, more importantly, to vilify violence that is deemed illegitimate because exerted by non-state actors and
aimed at undermining state power. As a consequence, governments are able to introduce
counter-terrorist measures they could not have justified otherwise.
An even earlier example of the value of the successful imposition of terrorism discourse by a
political regime is the case of Russia in the late nineteenth century. Here, terrorism was initially
understood as an affirmative self-denomination by means of which the terrorist became the protagonist of a subversive discourse (see, for example, Stepniak-Kravchinski 1883; Morozov
1972; Tarnovski 2004). While the Czarist regime initially referred to the revolutionaries as anarchists, by the mid-1880s, it had colonised the dissident understanding of terrorism and asserted
an interpretation that attached the name terrorism to the anarchist movement. Terrorism became
the pretext for introducing exceptional measures and for forcefully combating the revolutionaries (Stepniak-Kravchinski 1883; Walther 1990; Jensen 2004). In other words, the regime
mobilised the term terrorism as a label that allowed for demonising and delegitimising antistate violence, affirming the regimes legitimacy, and introducing exceptional measures to
fight the terrorists.
What these examples show is that the term terrorism is deployed as a name for violence
against states by non-state actors that are not recognized as legitimate and whose violence is
therefore perceived as illegitimate. This view has displaced alternative interpretations and permeated public consciousness since the emergence of what is usually referred to as religious or
Islamic terrorism. In particular, the years following the events we call 9/11 have cemented a
public understanding of terrorism as political violence against states that is exercised by
groups or individuals who do not belong to recognised states and thus lacks legitimacy


V. Erlenbusch

(cf. Butler 2004). At the same time, the concept has undergone a process of fragmentation that
resulted in the potential applicability of terrorism to all sorts of actions that are perceived as
threats to the so-called Western way of life.9 The obscurity that underpins and troubles any
effort that seeks to establish a once-and-for-all definition of terrorism is congealed and reflected
in legal attempts to grapple with terrorism. As opposed to international law that attempts to
identify a relatively comprehensive list of violent acts that count as terrorism (see, for
example, the Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, United Nations
General Assembly 1994), national anti-terrorist legislation mainly employs two strategies to
tackle the problem of terrorism: on the one hand, states tend to outlaw as criminal those acts
that are interpreted as terrorist. On the other hand, they rely on emergency decrees that allow
for the restriction of civil liberties and preemptive action.10
Two processes seem to be at work here. First, the attribution of the label terrorism to a certain
form of violence constitutes an attempt to grasp terrorist violence in legal terms as illegal. It consequently also appears as illegitimate. Secondly, the lack of legality and legitimacy of terrorism
that is always implied by this view licenses excessive and extraordinary measures to be taken
against those designated terrorists; measures that would normally lack both legality and legitimacy. The paradoxical result is that under the pretext of security and the preservation of liberal
democracy, governments justify anti-terrorist measures that rely on emergency legislation and
the curtailing of civil liberties.
To recapitulate, terrorism applies to those acts of violence that question the assumed unity of
legal and legitimate violence. Again, this becomes clear when looking at violence not from the
states point of view, but from the perspective of those who are deemed terrorists. Osama Bin
Laden, the incarnation of terrorism par excellence, explicitly addresses the arbitrariness of
bestowing legitimacy on state violence, but not on similar acts of violence that are not
covered by state power.
What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores
of years. When people at the ends of the earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands,
young and old, it was not considered a war crime, it is something that has justification. Millions
of children in Iraq is something that has justification. But when they lose dozens of people in
Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Iraq was struck and Afghanistan was struck. (Bin Laden 1998)

What is at stake here, on the one hand, is precisely the identification of legality and legitimacy
of violence. On the other hand, Bin Laden attempts to undermine the justification of U.S. state
violence whose consequences are unmatched by acts of terrorism. His words convey a desire
to cut the connection between violence, law, and legitimacy with which the modern state has
endowed itself.
In the light of Benjamins theoretical reflections in the Critique of violence, I want to argue
that the link between violence, law, and legitimacy that is explored suggests an understanding of
terrorism in the context of contested legitimacy as a name invented and invoked by supposedly
liberal and democratic governments. Terrorism is a label that is deployed by governments
against anti-state actors who do not recognise the states monopoly on legitimate violence.
The successful rendering of violence as terrorist and, hence, illegal and illegitimate, serves as
a justification for established power relations and helps the state to reassert its monopoly on
legitimate violence. Moreover, it licenses the use of exceptional counter-terrorist measures
(such as the trial of terror suspects by military tribunal, detention without charge and profiling
based on religion or race) that would be illegal and illegitimate when taken against non-terrorist
civilians or foreigners. At the same time, the use of the term terrorism allows for the curtailing of
civil liberties of the population in the name of security and the protection of constitutional rights.
These measures are neither liberal nor democratic, but reveal the illiberal and authoritarian tendencies of contemporary politics.

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This article has tried to engage Benjamins theoretical considerations on violence to reflect on
current political developments that produce illiberal and anti-democratic conditions in the name
of the protection of rights and security. What is at stake for governments in the case of terrorism
is their prerogative to the legitimate use of force. If violence that is not covered by state authority
succeeded at claiming legitimacy, the states entitlement to legitimate violence would perish.
The problem is not that the existence of legitimate violence outside the framework of law is
unthinkable. Rather, such violence threatens the state as a whole, whose survival depends on
its ability to represent terrorism as illegitimate violence and as an impending and real threat
to the life and security of the population.
For Benjamin, the only device capable of asserting state power in such situations is the proclamation of a state of emergency. As has been shown, exceptional measures are the linchpin of
anti-terrorist legislation. Particularly in the wake of 9/11, it has readily been argued that we are
now living in a state of exception that has become the rule (see, for example, Agamben 1998,
2005; Van Munster 2004; Diken and Laustsen 2005; Huysmans 2006; Neal 2006; Secor
2007; Aradau 2007; Gregory 2007). Following Benjamin, invoking a state of emergency constitutes the states attempt to re-enforce its fate-imposed prerogative to legal violence. So while the
state of exception in which we now live appears to be the rule, it imparts the modern liberal
democratic and allegedly secular states secret foundation in myth. It is, therefore, not the
current suspension of constitutional rights that should fluster us; what is unsettling is that this
suspension functions as a permanent mechanism of state power that claims to maintain the
law while abolishing the very rights it professes to protect.
The question that remains to be asked is how we can dispose of a politics in which rights are
revealed as the prerogative of the mighty and their suspension has become the rule for the
oppressed. For Benjamin,
(w)e must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly
realise that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in
the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its
opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing
are still possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning
of knowledge unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.
(Benjamin 1970, 259)

Based on his critique of a particular understanding of history as progress,11 Benjamin takes

this political condition of exceptionalism to be peculiar to a certain historical epoch. No political
form is the logical result of a causal progress because history is not underwritten by iron laws or
natural necessity. Therefore, unable to prescribe an alternative, Benjamin calls for a real state of
emergency that will do away with a form of politics that relies on emergency measures to sustain
itself. If a state of emergency is understood as the temporary suspension of the constitution (or
parts of it), the real state of emergency coincides with the destruction of law and the abolition of
the state. This understanding is in keeping with Benjamins notion of divine violence. The
remedy to mythical violence and all its consequences are divine violence or a real state of exception. Both introduce a break to make the continuum of history explode (Benjamin 1970, 263)
and create an opening for a more just politics. Benjamin maps out a political philosophy that
repeats the structure of theology. His insistence on a politics that realises morality and
freedom for humanity, as well as on the necessity of a caesura that starts a new historical
epoch, is ultimately messianic.
This is not to say that the violence that is currently identified as terrorism represents a case of
Benjamins divine violence. What it does bring out, however, are the authoritarian (or to speak
with Benjamin, mythical) tendencies underlying liberal democracy.


V. Erlenbusch

Thanks to James Gordon Finlayson, Darrow Schecter, Colin McQuillan, Chris Allsobrook, to the
editors of this journal, and to three anonymous reviewers.

1. The English edition of Walter Benjamins Critique of violence (Zur Kritik der Gewalt, 1921) is pervaded by highly problematic translations. This inaccuracy culminates in the last three sentences of the
text. Benjamin calls law-making violence schaltend, law-preserving violence verwaltend, and, lastly,
divine violence waltend. The translation proposes to understand the first as executive, the second as
administrative, and the third as sovereign violence. Without going into too much etymological
detail, it has to be noted that it is the last translation of waltend as sovereign that concerns me
here. According to the Deutsches Worterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm (1854), the
original meaning of walten is Kraft fur etwas, Gewalt uber etwas haben to have strength for or
force over something. In New High German, walten is rarely used, although mostly in the sense of
Macht uber etwas haben, regieren, besitzen, sich einer Sache annehmen (to have power over something, to govern, to own, to attend to someone or something). Alongside the notion of power and
control thus grew a second meaning of commitment and devotion.
Moreover, the legal connotations of the term sovereign make it inapplicable to divine violence, since
it is the only form of violence that is pure and beyond the sphere of means and ends. As antithesis to the
schaltende character of mythical violence that masters and disposes of the life of people for its own
sake, the waltende and divine violence attends to life for the sake of the living. Hence, the two
forms of violence are situated in entirely disconnected spheres. To use an inherently legal term
(sovereignty) to denote divine violence is thus a contradiction in terms.
These inconsistencies in the translation of Benjamins text are a consequence of the polysemy of the
German term Gewalt that is translated as violence in the English edition of Benjamins text. It
reflects a range of legal terms that are rooted in Roman law and resulted in an ambiguity of the
term Gewalt that oscillates between the monopoly of authority and physical force (Rottgers 1980;
Ganslandt 2004). I would argue that Benjamins use of Gewalt has to be understood along the
same lines. Not only does he refer to the legal form of violence, which according to him nowadays
is the only form of violence that can be thought of and which has to be criticized and rejected, but
also to pure force (cf. Hamacher 1991).
2. The English translation here is not in accordance with the German original. Whereas the English
edition reads a different kind of violence came into view that certainly could be either the justified
or the unjustified means to those ends (Benjamin 1997, 147), the German original states that zugleich
eine Gewalt anderer Art absehbar werden sollte, die dann freilich zu jenen Zwecken nicht das
berechtigte noch das unberechtigte Mittel sein konnte (Benjamin 1965, 54; my emphasis). The
English translation should read, A different kind of violence came into view that certainly could
not be either the justified or the unjustified means to those ends.
3. The role of myth and its relationship with Enlightenment have been further explored by Theodor
W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of enlightenment (cf. Horkheimer and Adorno
4. For a more detailed analysis of Benjamins understanding of fate and nature and their relation to myth,
see Salzani (2008).
5. This is what Derrida calls la fondation mythique et violente du droit (Derrida 1994, 123).
6. The similarity between this view of the state as an effect of power and Michel Foucaults understanding
of the state as the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities (Foucault 2008, 77) is noteworthy. For an exploration of the affinities between Benjamin and Foucault, particularly with regard to
their understanding of historiography, see Brown (2001).
7. This idea of a state of exception that has become the rule figures prominently in the political philosophy
of Giorgio Agamben. It is in keeping with Benjamin rather than Carl Schmitt that Agamben develops
his theory of exceptionalism in Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (1998) and State of
exception (2005). Thanks to Colin McQuillan for pointing this out to me.
8. A genealogy that traces an emerging awareness of the political usefulness of terrorism and interprets
the becoming of the terrorist as an object of knowledge and a subject of politics is part of my current
doctoral research.

Journal of Global Ethics


9. The ramifications of this can be seen in the proliferation of terrorism discourse with regard to the
potential dangers of the internet (cf. Alexander and Swetnam 2001; Weimann 2006), or the hijacking
of the term to describe the effects of the recent financial crisis (cf. the labeling of the financial
meltdown as 9/15 in analogy to 9/11 in Eichengreen 21 September 2008; see also Businessworld
19 September 2009).
10. Paradigmatic cases are German legislation against the Red Army Faction (the so-called Kontaktsperregesetz, passed in 1977 based on emergency legislation under 34 of the penal code) or the USA
Patriot Act in response to 11 September 2001. Both examples involve exceptional measures and a
suspension of civil rights.
11. For a detailed discussion of Benjamins philosophy of history, see the chapter on Specters and angels:
Benjamin and Derrida in Wendy Browns Politics out of history (2001).

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