The Whiff of War
An Interview with Bernard-Henri Levi
Mudede and Veroli: One thing that occurred to us is that your books are deeply informed by the European Philosophical tradition, especially by the Hegelian trajectoryfrom Hegel to Kojeve to Bataille. This means you have a real sensibility with the role of the negative in history, of violence, suffering, and destruction. So we just wanted to start out straight away by asking what you think the role of negative is in history.
The role of the negative is exactly what Hegel wanted to deny. I believe, unfortunately, in negativity, in nihilism. The old philosophical tradition of the western world believed that at the end of the day there is no real negativity, it embraced a future positivity. I believe that this is not the case. That negativity has its strengths, its beingness, its radicality on two sides: the negativity of suffering, of the tragedy, the pure negation without solace, without consolation, without redemption, the pure negativity of the suffering. This is a negativity conceived as a pure loss. Negativity as dry loss is, unfortunately, the rule. I have seen so much suffering which has no meaning, which has no future, a pure loss. That is on one side. And then on the other side, I define negativity as a pure hatred, a pure violence, a negativity without any positivity implied. This is a nihilism, a terrorism, a Nazism. So, on the two sides: one, a negativity considered as dry loss (this is the negative of the victim); on the other, the negativity considered as the murder for the murder (this is the negativity of the killer).
What about your advocacy for just wars. You believe that some wars are just. But someone who believes in just wars believes some sort of negativity could be redeemed. The negation of the negation, as it were.
Yes, you have to deal with pure negativity, which is not redeemed, which is not embracing a positivity. But also I believe that in front of certain situations, like genocide or pure slavery and so on, of course war can be less evil. And I have fought all my life for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. I fought all my life for the idea that if the international community had done its duty maybe we could have stopped the genocide in Rwanda. I fought all my life for real intervention in Timor. So I believe that, yes, it is not a question of positivity or negativity. It is something else: lesser evil. I believe politics consists of choosing less evil against evil, or less, less evil than less evil. Even if I hate war, I hate war as anyone, and I know it, better than a lot of people, I know war. I know what it is, I know the whiff of it, the smell, the taste, better than many of the pacifists. But I believe that you have some circumstances where war is the lesser evil. In Bosnia it was clear, in front of the bloodbath, in front of the children shot dead. Same in Afghanistan. In order to destroy the country of Al Qaeda, and in order to give real support to the Northern Alliance. War was the lesser the evil.
I believe, no. Iraq I believe was a mistake. When you do politics, when you make a war, it is exactly at the crossroad of morals and ethics in politics. Of course the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was, ethically speaking, correct. Nobody could deny that. I would not stand against that point. But when you are dealing with war and peace between nations you have to not only act as a moralist, you have to deal with things as a politician. And politics requires some very precise questions: Will your act increase or weaken the evil you are supposed to fight? Will you have after the war in Iraq more or less slavery, more or less violence in the area, more or less terrorism on the whole planet? These were the real questions. Less or more misery, less or more slavery and oppression, less or more terrorism. For me it was clear on these three points: The war will cause more terrorism, the war will cause more local violence, and the war will cause more distress for the people. So it was a bad solution.
Lets move to the situation in France. What about the uprising by people of color in France? Did you find them American?
If I found these riots American? Of course yes, and that is what I said, by the way, to my fellow citizens. I told them and I told Americans, who also failed to discover the meaning of the riots. They were full of scandalized articles about the riots in Paris slums, and so on. Remember Los Angeles, and not only Los Angeles but also remember Detroit! Americans have a short memory sometimes, and they should have known that the French behavior had one advantage over the American one: No one died, no bloodbath. You had a bloodbath in L.A. 10 years ago. You know that better than me. Thirty or forty dead. Maybe more. But in France, no one.
In your remarks at the University Bookstore, you argued eloquently against the claim that America has a fascist government. Okay, lets grant that America is not a fascist country at this point in time, but we are wondering, is it still possible that at the same time the U.S. may no longer be a democracy? A number of things are leading more and more people to take this thesis seriously: the emptiness of the two-party system, the corruption of the legislative system, the increasing authoritarian composition of the judicial body, spying on citizens, Guantanamo Bay, and so on. Is it possible that America is no longer a democracy?
I believe that lately the margin between democracy and tyranny in democratic regimes is very thin. Very thin, very little, the margin. This is true. It has been the case in turbulent times and it is the case today. So I agree with most of what you have said, and I evoke that in my book, American Vertigo. All of the examples you evoke, all of the examples you quote, I saw it with my own eyes and heard with my ears. I agree on the fact that the Democratic Party is absolutely zero; that it lost because of that. As I said in the University Bookstore, I met so many Americans, just average Americans, good citizens, voters who told me they would have voted for Kerry, they would have voted for him, they agreed with him, but he has no ideas, and so they voted for Bush because he stands up for his own points. He has guts, he believes in what he says, and so on and so on. I'm pretty sure that this country feels the need for a left, for a progressive Democratic Party having just a little more guts. A party that is going to say that it is in favor of gun control and then whose presidential candidate ges hunting the day after in order not to disappoint the other voters. I agree with all that. But I still say it is absolutely false to speak of America as a fascist country.
I visited the American prisons. They are not gulags. A gulag is something elseyou have you have real inhuman, close-to-death-imposing treatments, which is not the case in American jails. A gulag is an industrial system of dealing with a whole part of the population whose unique crime is not to agree with the regime. I hate American prisons! I say it. I believe a lot of people who are in there should not be in there. I believe American jails are conceived in a way that the criminals who come there become more criminal when they come out. But they are not prisoners of opinion. They are not just dissidents who don't agree with Bush. That is not true. They are petty criminals, petty delinquents, dealers of drugs, and so on, but they are not freedom fighters. You cannot say that. So it is not a gulag, and you are not a fascist country. The very fact that you exist, that The Stranger exists, that The Stranger is here and remains free, that you can be here sitting and saying all that, wondering if America is a fascist country or not, is proof that you are not in a fascist country.