Hannah Arendt on Terror

Hannah Arendt wrote about the sheer arbitrariness of modern terror, wherein innocent victims are selected precisely because they are innocent. When we look at the Nazi Holocaust, we naturally ask how they could murder innocent men, women, children, and babies. Of course, they did not actually think the babies or anyone else deserved to die or that they represented a real threat to Nazi power. They were essentially saying, “We can kill you and your children simply because we have the power to do it. No one must forget that we have the power to kill anyone at any time of our choosing.” Moreover, the public must know about this; the terror must be publicized, whether by mass media or simply word of mouth.

The same principle applies when a police officer stops an African American man and hassles him and possibly kills him. The police are saying, “We have this power, and don’t you forget it.” Men abuse their girlfriends or wives for the same reason. If there were some clear reason or trigger for the beating, the victim could walk on eggshells and try to avoid that trigger, and thereby make the situation more tolerable.

To be effective, some power must be held in reserve; power, like money or talent, mustn’t be used up. This is the principle of surplus power. There must be some power held in reserve. To maintain this surplus, the victim cannot be capable of forcing a particular reaction from the oppressor. An abused child might, for example, tell his father to go fuck himself and the father might just laugh it off or pat the kid on the shoulder. But later when the same child ties his shoes improperly, he might get a beating. If a prison inmate can spit in the face a guard and provoke a beating, then the guard loses his power. The point is, the beating must be unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary. The powerful force must be a self-determined system; it decides when, where, and how to exert power. This the kind of power Kafka so brilliantly portrayed.

For several months in the mid-1980s, a serial killer named Richard Ramirez, who came to be called the Night Stalker, terrorized the Los Angeles and them San Francisco. What made him so terrifying was that he seemed to choose his victims randomly; he targeted all kinds of people, so no one felt safe. His choices weren’t actually random, however, because all of victims were physically frail or weak (like two women in their 80s) or smaller than him. They were also in a vulnerable condition. Often victims were in bed asleep at the time. He never attacked anyone who was as strong as he was.

Terror is opposed to trust, and trust is fundamental to healthy social system. In general, social systems want as much trust and predictability as possible.

Arendt also observed that victims are not chosen arbitrarily, as shown with Richard Ramirez. The victim might seem random, but there is typically some sign of vulnerability. The abusive parent often selects one child (perhaps the one perceived as the easiest target or the greatest threat) as the primary target, and the police don’t stop and hassle just anyone. And the Nazis didn’t select the Jews arbitrarily.


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