A traumatic experience is one that a person cannot assimilate. A person recovers from trauma by processing the traumatic experience, breaking it down, integrating it into themselves in a good way. Until this can happen, the traumatic experience remains lodged within the person’s psyche as a foreign body. It remains separate from themselves, alien.
The concept of ‘atrocity’ designates absolute moral rejection. Atrocious acts are beyond moral justification. The perpetrator, too, is pushed outside the moral dialogue. To accuse a state of atrocity, to exclude the sovereign itself from moral community, attempts to reverse the normal relationship between those who exercise force and those upon whom force is exercised.
Moral rules confront us as objective facts. A moral rule, as Durkheim observed, is one that is authoritative in itself. And yet moral rules are the product of human action. We may have our reasons for making them, we may not make the freely or under conditions of our choosing, but we do make them. We produce moral rules and then we forget that we have produced them and we obey them as if they were gods.
Political elites who champion human rights causes frequently gain political capital from doing so. Is this what motivates them? Are they cynical opportunists? In a sense it doesn’t matter. If a cause did not confer political capital on its champions, it would not be represented at the highest levels of state politics. Either no elites would take it up, or those who did would sacrifice their elite status. Close to the sovereign, campaigns against atrocity ebb and flow according to a logic of political capital. This logic is quite separate from the logic of humanistic moral universalism.
Some people can institute a doctrine, a policy, even a law just by calling up some people they know and having a lunch meeting. These people sit close to the sovereign. By ‘the sovereign’ I mean the authority which monopolizes the means of military and police force, and by extension the law and taxation. Today in most places the sovereign is an institution rather than an individual. But even so, we can observe a fundamental division between those who participate directly in sovereignty and those over whom sovereignty is exercised. Representative democracy ameliorates this division somewhat but does not transcend it.
Five separations: between trauma and subjectivity; between those accused of and those who accuse them; between the objectivity of moral rules and their creation through human action; between the logic of political capital and the logic of humanistic morality; between sovereigns and subjects. Can we trace a connection between these five alienations?