Monday, April 23, 2007

On the origins of totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt wrote in The origins of totalitarianism (Harvest Book, Harcourt, San Diego etc. 1976, p.440):

"These camps correspond in many respects to the concentration camps at the beginning of totalitarian rule; they were used for ‘suspects’ whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced on ordinary process of law".

And a few pages hereafter:

"The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done, on the one hand, by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law and forcing at the same time, through the instrument of denationalization, the nontotalitarian world into recognition of lawlessness; it was done, on the other hand, by placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the juridical procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty"

(ibid. p. 447).
My first thought, when reading these passages was not that it was about the concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War (where the first concentration camps in the world were established) in the first quotation, or about the concentration camps in Nazi-Germany and the former Soviet Union in the second quotation, but my first thought was: Guantanamo! That is something to think about. Is "Guantanamo" the first step to totalitarianism? Attacking crime is not simply a matter of catching criminals, but it is also, and most of all, a matter of defending one’s own values. And what is certain anyway is that Guantanamo is not the latter, defending one’s own values, whichever way you look at it.

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