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. The victim also 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 arbitrary. The powerful force must be a self-determined system; it decides when and how to exert power. This the kind of power Kafka so brilliantly portrayed.

Luhmann discussed this principle of surplus power, as I’ve written elsewhere.

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. 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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