TitleNo judging without suffering, no suffering without judging

“The life of a human being is above the State” (Albert Camus)

18 May 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo
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The French writer Albert Camus was convinced that in many situations the crimes of the state “far outweigh those of individuals.” He was writing after WWII and long before the making of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its technology of execution. Since the 12 June 2009 presidential elections in Iran, thousands have been arrested, hundreds tortured and several dozen executed. The summary execution of five Iranian political prisoners in the past one week appears to signal a government policy of relying on the technology of execution to strengthen its position vis-à-vis its opposition through terror and intimidation. This situation represents a horrendous lack of respect for human dignity and human rights in Iran, but it also interpellates us on the question of what Camus called “the premeditated murder by the state.” Where technology of execution is applied, barbarism dominates; where premeditated murder by the state is inexistent, democracy governs.

Why is the world silent when it sees the crimes that have been committed against young Iranians?

Actually, technology of execution is a state’s disrespect for the sanctity of human life. The ability of a state to live comfortably with the idea of political execution is perhaps a clue to how collaborators with such a state are able to live with the idea of barbarism: once we accept the notion that a state has the right to execute people and the right to define what is a crime against the state, aren’t we eliminating others in our minds? Hannah Arendt defined politics as making oneself present in the presence of others, and making others present in one’s mind. In that sense, responsibility is political, because it depends on our presence to others. For example, if we participate in or approve of the political crimes of a particular government, we are responsible for our doing, that is, for influencing a given political situation. Subsequently, we are also responsible for the crimes of this government, not because we voted for it and not because it reflects the chosen policy of our community, but because we share the same world and we pretend to be civilized. From this point forward, there will be no difference between an individual, who suffers from the criminal actions of his/her government, and people around the world who witness passively these crimes.

The technology of execution shocks the foundations of human civilization. It reminds us that we must learn lessons of the past crimes and mass murders committed by states again and again. But it also teaches us that we have a shared responsibility to fight these evils. Confronted with technology of execution, it will not help us to close our eyes to the reality of state crimes. As it appears, belonging to a common world as ours is synonymous to a shared suffering. Suffering refers to our being immersed in the human web of human relationships and making sense of our humanity in the world. There is no judging without suffering as there is no suffering without judging either, because suffering is always perpetuated or initiated by a judgment of the heart or the mind. We are responsible when we share the suffering of others. We are also responsible when we introduce a radical change in the process of that suffering. We can go one step further here and suggest that responsibility defined in this twofold manner, constitutes the two sides of the same coin. Therefore, responsibility is the link between sharing the suffering of others and individual deeds to fight this sufferings.

Political life consists of the transformation of shared values through actions of solidarity. However, under the spell of ideologies and messianic politics, this solidarity and sense of sharing are absent. People become blind to the objective presence of others. They forget that they are dealing with human beings. In other words, they dissociate their acts and judgments from their sense of sharing the suffering of others. In this sense, this absence of sharing the suffering of others is a lack of responsibility for the world. Because after all, responsibility includes the possible need to sacrifice oneself for other human beings. It is the miracle that saves the world from cruelty and total violence. We are responsible when our doing stands for others and when we share a common fate with other members of the human race.

Shortly after the fall of Nazism, Karl Jaspers, a philosophy professor at Heidelberg University lectured on the subject of the German guilt. He distinguished between four types of guilt and degrees of responsibility: criminal guilt (the commitment of overt acts), political guilt (the degree of political acquiescence in the Nazi regime), moral guilt (a matter of private judgement among one’s friends), and metaphysical guilt (a universally shared responsibility of those who chose to remain alive rather than die in protest against Nazi atrocities). According to Jaspers, political “responsibility” is not the same thing as criminal or metaphysical responsibility. As Jaspers explains, “there is liability for political guilt”, and therefore one can demand appropriate consequences. Going back to the question of technology of execution and its application in a country like Iran, we can say that ordinary Iranian citizens should not be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by their government. Nevertheless, following on Jaspers, those inside and outside Iran who approve of such technology are politically liable for what their government does. The tragic war that followed the breakdown of former Yugoslavia triggered a new interest among the international community to defend humanity against excesses. The world needs to know that the situation that has arisen in Iran for the past thirty-one years has caused misery to Iranian population and to human values. The question is: why is the world silent when it sees the crimes that have been committed against young Iranians? If the international community fails to condemn such atrocities, Iran’s regime will continue to trample on the basic rights of individuals. As the international community focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, it should also focus on the violation of human rights in Iran as a matter of urgency.

What is now at stake is to challenge the moral and political illegitimacy of state violence in Iran. But it is also to require some levels of solidarity and empathy from other citizens of the world in supporting the Iranian struggle for democracy and respect of universal values of human rights. As the saying goes, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom.”

Tehran Review
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  1. Pooyan says:

    ?”How universal is “metaphysical guilt”

    .If everybody is guilty, then no one is

    ?Do we really have to intertwine the concepts of responsibility and guilt

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