The preemptive logic of the “lesser evil” is often invoked to justify the use of a lesser violence to prevent a supposedly greater, projected one. The argument conjures a cold calculus of differentials, one in which good and evil are seen as commodities that are exchanged, transferred, speculated upon and in constant circulation. But, as in our contemporary financial economy, the Leibnitzian theodicy of “the best of all possible worlds” is in crisis, and out of its ruins emerges its twin—the necro-economy of “the least of all possible evils.” Eyal Weizman’s most recent book The Least of All Possible Evils looks specifically at the structure of this argument, the predictive and incalculable conceptions of violence it puts forth, and its redeployment as a means of providing a convenient bogeyman for justifying almost any atrocity committed in the name of even more heinous hypothetical consequences. Looking at the forces shaping international law, at the paradoxes of the humanitarian band-aid, and at the dark art of forensic architecture, EW points to the very shape of a weak negativity that characterizes the withdrawal of any coherent mission for the left.
This article is composed of excerpted passages from The Least of All Possible Evils, chosen and sequenced by the editors to provide another point of reflection on the theme of this issue—a crisis in the conjunction of violence and economy. The excerpts are drawing mainly from the first three chapters—on the historical origins of the lesser evil argument, on its contemporary deployment as humanitarian aid, and on the potential for unlocking violence by employing the inherent elasticity of the law.
If, as a friend recently suggested, we ought to construct a monument to our present political culture as an homage to the principle of the “lesser evil,” it should be made in the form of the digits 6-6-5 built of concrete blocks, and installed like the Hollywood sign on hillsides or other high points overlooking city centers. This number, one less than the number of the beast—that of the devil and of total evil—might capture the essence of our humanitarian present, obsessed as it is with the calculations and calibrations that seek to moderate, ever so slightly, the evils that it has largely caused.
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