Judith Butler: War Empathizer

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Illustration: Gluekit • Butler photo: Hendrik Speck

In 2004 Americans gaped in shame and anger at images of nude, hooded prisoners heaped on top of one another, menaced with dogs or forced to masturbate by members of the U.S. armed forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Major media outlets soon settled on an angle for the story: Those responsible for the abuse–keen to exploit Islamic taboos on public nudity and homosexuality–cruelly crafted methods of torture to disgrace conservative Muslims.

In her recent book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler retells this story but boldly revises the conclusion. First, she asks, who would not have suffered at the end of a leash in Abu Ghraib? Second, she asserts that by envisioning the violence at Abu Ghraib as torture tailored for Muslims, we have caricatured them as members of a backward culture. We imagine that they hold retrogressive beliefs about modesty and propriety that make them particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. While it is true that cultural sensitivities were exploited, Butler argues, emphasizing this perspective falsely elevates our own progressiveness. We assume our own superiority by believing that Abu Ghraib’s victims were uniquely suited to suffer as they did.

Butler’s trenchant and brilliant book is all about this kind of “frame,” an image or a discussion that allows us to think of certain people as natural victims of violence. Her work suggests that by defining people as residents of war zones, we have, so to speak, zoned them for war. We don’t grieve their deaths, and the call for nonviolence is shouted down because we haven’t recognized their lives as fully livable.

Those who dismiss the deaths of women and children in Israel-besieged Gaza come in for sharp criticism. They claim that Hamas puts women and children in harm’s way both as a gambit to deter attack and, if the attack comes, as a rallying cry against Israeli aggression. But Butler, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and recently conducted research in the West Bank, counters that “if the Palestinian children who are killed by mortar and phosphorous bombs are human shields, then they are not children at all, but rather bits of armament, military instruments and matériel.” Those who claim that the deaths of women and children are unfortunate but inevitable are denying that these lives ever could have been safe or untouched by war, she says.

Butler aims to ask who counts as ungrievable and to dismantle frames that obscure the answer. While news reports assault us with death tolls, abstractions reinforcing the idea that bloodshed happens “over there,” Butler has recently put $1.5 million from a Mellon Foundation award toward an institute for the critical study of violence.

As her book makes clear, if nonviolence is to appeal at all, we must realize that our own lives, secure as they seem, are not naturally safe. We’re just richer, better armed, more powerful. It is essential, therefore, that we heed Butler’s words and “stay responsive to the equal claim of the other for shelter”–shelter that seems impossible only if we imagine that there are places zoned for war.


Butler was interviewed in Guernica earlier this year, and we highlighted some favorite parts of what she had to say. You can check out her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? as well.

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