“The subterranean stream of Western History has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present and nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.”
With these words, Hannah Arendt closes the preface of the first edition of “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. In 1950, she pointed to the anti-thesis of which we are again reminded. There is a subterranean stream in our Western tradition; we have sought revenge as the means to protect our way of life – which includes our market-driven democracy, and possibly more insidious elements under that umbrella term. We have adopted violence as a means to “peace”. And our complicity in these means has created a moral obligation which no political or military effort, done out political or military motives, would be able to address.
Seven people in Afghanistan fell from the side of a plane they were trying to latch onto because they were trying to flee from the consequences of their “innocence” – their placid collaboration with Anglo-American forces for the past twenty years. As we who witnessed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center know all too well, the democracy-building project in Afghanistan was professional political language for an act of revenge. The disguise has been removed. As the US withdrew from Saigon in April of 1975, The United States and the U.K. have left in eerily similar scenes in Kabul this morning.
“I may be the most immoral son of a gun in this room,” Biden said at a Democratic caucus in early 1975 as he argued against aid to Cambodia, according to the Wilmington Morning News. “I’m getting sick and tired of hearing about morality, our moral obligation. There’s a point where you are incapable of meeting moral obligations that exist worldwide.”
Biden couldn’t be more correct. The moral obligations that the US has could not be met by any nation on earth, not even the most powerful. With all the talk of nation-building in American interests, America exacted revenge. Any of those Afghani citizens who collaborated will be the targets of punishment. Revenge for 9/11 meant trying to control Afghanistan to neutralize a threat. The collaborators in that project will now be neutralized. And the blood is on our hands because we had agreed to exact revenge.
Who are the collaborators? If you are reading this, you are. I am. We are not innocent, but likely we all have a nation protecting our “rights” – which only have factual reality if there is a country that protects them. American and UK nationals are being evacuated because they are protected by their status of having a state. Afghani collaborators no longer have such conditions. If they are able to escape Afghanistan, the first security they need is the provision of citizenship of a country that will guarantee their rights. Their innocence is not a protection. It is, in fact, it is their greatest danger. If they are not able to escape, they will either be assimilated (girls and young women as child brides) or killed. There is no state to protect their “rights”. And thus they do not, in fact, have rights. The collaborators with the US war of revenge are now stateless persons.
The stateless person, as Arendt demonstrates so forceful in Origins, is the newest mass phenomenon in the last 100 years – ever since the end of World War 1. No paradox of contemporary politics is more ironic than the discrepancy between well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as “inalienable” those human rights, which are enjoyed by only those citizens of the most prosperous and economically developed countries, and the situations of the right-less themselves.
Not only will the claim to innocence by Afghan collaborators be their greatest danger, but it will also be ours. For out of seeming self-protection and a war of revenge, we have taken on moral obligations that we have no capability of meeting. Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He was not merely right in sentiment, but in the realization of the consequences of actions that require forgiveness as their only final remedy.
We should never claim innocence, as those Afghans who now face a ruthless and very undemocratic power may be tempted to do. We have collaborated in a lifestyle that has been protected through revenge. If the countries who defended their lifestyle in such a way decide not to protect their collaborators, which seems almost certain, then they will have a moral obligation that they cannot meet.
And so we are left to moral account for which we must confess our sins. And we idealists will no longer be able to claim our defense of inalienable rights as justification for our sin. These rights are now being shown to be the most alienable thing of all – which we have seen for the last hundred years.
The stateless person is our reminder that democratic reliance on inalienable rights is a political sin of the first order. It shows us the reality of the confessing and forgiving relationship we have with others has been a reality we will never escape. That is, relationship is not one of innocence or guilt, but its very nature challenges the subterranean motives of a dignified Western history, as Arendt indicates, that has done very little confession and bears generational, reincarnated consequences of sin. The stateless person may, in fact, usurp the very idea of human dignity itself.