Home >> Volume 9 (Spring 2009) >> Language and the State >> Megan Eatman on "Sacred Violence"

Megan Eatman on "Sacred Violence"

Cover of "Sacred Violence": Illustration of man being tied up at wrist, bleeding

Paul W. Kahn

Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty

University of Michigan, 2008
233 pages

Reviewed by Megan Eatman

Paul W. Kahn’s recent book, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty, begins with the question, “If we are quite willing to kill, why not torture?” While the consequentialist weighing of many potential victims over one torture victim may feel uncomfortable, there would appear to be no difference between such musings and the calculation of collateral damage in, for example, planning a bombing campaign. However, the debate over torture, as well as its position in international law, indicates a clear division between the violence of war and the violence of torture in public and legal discourse. In considering torture’s seemingly strange position, Kahn relocates both torture and terror to the realm of the sacred, categorizing them as reciprocal actions of making meaning through pain, both taking as their root the sovereign’s demand that citizens consent to kill or be killed in its name. By demonstrating the importance of the sacred in the history of political violence, as well as in the contemporary War on Terror, Kahn begins to explain how torture and terror not only take as their base beliefs about the sacred nature of the sovereign, but also confuse the perceived boundaries of sovereignty by operating outside of rules of law and morality.

Kahn’s book is divided into two sections. The first, “Genealogical Inquiries,” connects torture and sovereignty and begins to delve into the current debate, while the second, “Violence and the Architecture of the Political Imagination,” discusses the social and imaginative constructions that attempt (often unsuccessfully) to mediate and re-classify the sovereign’s sacred violence. Kahn argues that modern citizenship is based on the same willingness to sacrifice as that which Abraham exhibited in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to form the nation of Israel. This example highlights the duality of the sacrifice that the sovereign demands. Abraham’s sacrifice is both of another and, in a way, of himself, as Isaac is his son. The modern sovereign operates in the same way; it is only the sacrifice that plays out differently. Rather than slaying his son on a mountain, the citizen must accept responsibility to defend the rest of the citizenry in battle. Battle offers the opportunity to sacrifice both the self and the other, and demonstrate the willingness to kill and be killed. As in Abraham’s case, the willingness itself is the sacrifice. Should the call to battle never arise, that lack does not rob the individual of his citizenship. It is through this willingness to sacrifice that the sovereign is constituted; thus, the sovereign is a kind of a god, and the relationship to the sovereign not one of contract, but of sacred bond. Violence is an integral but extralegal part of sovereignty, based in the sacred rather than the rule of law.

If violence is a sacred constitution of the sovereign, where does torture fit in, and why does it have the power to horrify? Kahn locates a shift from torture to war in the rise of the popular sovereign, arguing that the monarchy tortured in order to bridge “the gap between sovereign and subject.” He explains, “Torture is a political practice of making present the sovereign in the body of the victim” through the act of confession, in which the victim, destroyed by violence, becomes a subject in his surrender to the sovereign. Echoing the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism in Europe, after which the relationship between the individual and God no longer required mediation, the rise of popular sovereignty, in which the sovereign is present in the body of the citizen, outmodes torture because there is no longer any gap to bridge. The consent to be governed necessitates the pledge of sacrifice and there is no need to torture for an allegiance that has already been pledged. Thus, torture appears as “an abuse of power…mere violence, not sacrifice…as if Abraham continued to sacrifice Isaac when neither any longer heard the voice of God demanding the act.” Torture, Kahn argues, is not offensive because of its violence or asymmetry of power, but because torture “offends our sense of the political/theological.” The link of torture and terror stems directly from this relation to the sovereign. Because the terrorist “is not violating the law, [but] denying sovereignty” through attempted sacrifice to his own sovereign, the existential challenge that the terrorist represents will, according to Kahn, always be met with torture as a reassertion of the sovereign’s power.

While Kahn’s formulation of violence as an assertion of sovereign power is not new, his movement into the realm of the sacred makes a convincing case for the current debate on torture. His argument is most effective in illustrating the inadequacy of legal and moral language when discussing acts of sacrifice. His invocation of the ticking time bomb hypothetical is particularly interesting. Kahn argues that the scenario’s endless flexibility leads to a numbers game in which personal sensibilities, legal or moral, will eventually collapse in light of an increasing number of hypothetical dead. The hypothetical is useless in policy-making for a variety of reasons (not least of which being that no such scenario has ever occurred), but Kahn points out that, in the end, the debate over this hypothetical “misses a fundamental element of our crisis over torture.” After all, the scenario is neither one of legality (because, Kahn argues, torture is defined as law’s other) nor of moral universalism (because the bomb isn’t just anywhere, but here). The ticking time bomb scenario “is the contemporary version of the founding myth of the state. It represents the point of transformation from the person as a universal moral agent to the subject as citizen.” The ticking time bomb scenario asks the individual whether he would sacrifice in the name of the sovereign. The answer surpasses the limits of morality and law because it invokes the sacred bond between citizen and sovereign; thus, any examination of the situation with moral or legal language is fundamentally ineffective. 

Kahn’s recontextualization of political violence provides an interesting opportunity to consider the larger nature of citizenship and the sovereign. The argument is strongest at its narrowest points, where it focuses on the current War on Terror. While statements such as “we will control torture only when we control terror” may close off alternative possibilities for sovereignty somewhat preemptively, such sentiment rings true when the two phenomena are so closely linked in current (and many historical) events. And this closure is productive, because it leaves more avenues for exploration. Where and how do we create meaning without violence? How do we imagine a sovereign that does not respond to threat with violence? As Kahn briefly acknowledges, shifting loci of global power make these questions significant. Kahn’s construction of torture and terror as reciprocal phenomena collapses the legal limits of sovereignty, suggesting that our understanding of the sovereign is overly narrow even before we consider the rise of international law and governance. Can we read the reactions to these global trends differently based on Kahn’s formulation of the sovereign? While the focus of Sacred Violence is narrow, the text provides a lens through which to consider the shifting nature of the sovereign and the persistent prevalence of political violence. For anyone interested in state violence, the nature of the sovereign, or the current debate on torture, Sacred Violence is a provocative read.