When King Lear had his famous epiphany upon a heath in the middle of a storm, he was struck by the perceived lack of humanity in the beggar without shelter or garb, without place or purpose; a man stripped to nothing but the bare requirements of living. While the “poor naked wretches” of his speech were those who lived outside of feudal society, Lear’s description of poor Tom the beggar as barely human is reminiscent of the kinds of normative frameworks used to describe the plight of civilians in warfare, especially during the recent War on Terror.
The original actors in violent conflict, as defined by law, are the combatant and the civilian; clearly defined, demarcated categories with rights and duties associated with them. Since the War on Terror began (and in fact long before that), the labels given to people involved in armed conflict have multiplied. Prisoners of war are now ‘battlefield detainees’, civilians taking part in hostilities are ‘unlawful combatants‘ or, even more emotively – ‘abusive civilians’ . In his discussion of Just War Theory, Alex Bellamy uses the somewhat enigmatical term ‘enemy non-combatants’ ostensibly to describe the civilians of ‘enemy’ states. This term appears to fly in the face of current understandings of the laws and norms of warfare: by virtue of being civilians, these people are not supposed to be considered enemies – they are hors de combat.
If the defining actors in conflicts are combatants and civilians, the people designated these labels are the ‘Other’. These Others have been conceptualised in many different ways by scholars preoccupied with the ethics of war. Judith Butler describes them as ‘ungrieveable’ – their lives are already unliveable, they are unreal and dehumanised and because of this their deaths are not deaths at all. Kinsella emphasises their lack of agency, their inability to act as political beings, stemming from traditional norms of civilians as ‘women and children’, in need of protection and incapable of action. Agamben refers to this state of ‘otherness’ as ‘bare life’, human life that is completely politicised and is therefore apolitical.
For Agamben, the concentration camp is a physical ‘state of exception’ – the realm of the apolitical, those things that exist by virtue of not-being. A slightly easier concept to wrap one’s head around is Ignatieff’s ‘heath’ – the space of madness and chaos that Lear inhabits when he encounters the beggar. This is a space outside of the very ordered society in which Lear lives – here Lear is not a King and Tom is not a beggar, because these categories no longer exist. This metaphorical state of exception only exists because it is excluded from ordered, ‘civilised’ life; it is a physical and ethical space in which bare life exists. A current real world example of this physical space is Syria – often described as ‘war-torn’. Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay is another.
The denizens of these spaces of exception are ‘enemy non-combatant’, the ‘unlawful combatant’ and the ‘abusive civilian’. Civilised wars are defined by their targeting of combatants and their protection of civilians , so these bare lives necessarily have to be defined out of this structure. Even when these Others do count, they are seen merely as potential lives – lives that will become liveable after the liberating and civilising military actions of the just warrior.
While the state of exception remains unspoken and unexamined, even those attempts to make bare lives count will fail to effectively subvert these normative frameworks. A recent example of an attempt to bring the realities of drone-attacks in Pakistan to international attention reproduces the conceptualisation of Pakistanis as agency-less victims, their lives unbearable and unliveable. We can see their faces, but they remain beyond description, beyond politics; they are ‘the thing itself’.