[T]he ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. Hence, to kill or to allow to live constitute the limits of sovereignty, its fundamental attributes.
—Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”
In June Tucker Carlson accompanied Donald Trump on a trip to North Korea to meet with the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Ostensibly, the meeting was to ease tensions between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and to convince Kim Jong Un to halt the DPRK’s nuclear program.
Following the meeting, Carlson phoned in to “Fox & Friends” to defend the controversial meeting, saying that although “There’s no defending the North Korean regime . . . you got to be honest about what it means to lead a country, it means killing people. Not on the scale that the North Koreans do, but a lot of countries commit atrocities, including a number that we’re closely allied with.” Carlson is pointing toward criticisms of Trump meeting with a dictator who oversees human rights abuses. Labor camps within the country perhaps emblematize the vision of the DPRK many have. The argument Carlson makes, then, is that sometimes the United States must engage with other nations no matter the brutality of their governance.
On the other side of this issue (though not for moral reasons) is the former national security adviser, John Bolton, a man with a propensity for war. Bolton, following his recent departure from the Trump administration, appeared to criticize the president for his lack of skepticism regarding Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization. Bolton argued that “A relaxed attitude to time is a benefit to the likes of North Korea and Iran.” The benefit, in this case, is the ability to continue the development — assuming development is already occurring — of nuclear weapons, and thus the ability to commit mass atrocity.
The concern that both men address in their own ways is that North Korea, a country whose leader has verbalized hostility to the United States and also violates human rights, will develop a nuclear weapon and either undermine the global influence of the United States or deploy it against the U.S. or its allies. Two images converge in this concern: the camp and the nuclear weapon. One cannot adequately address this anxiety without acknowledging the two of the most significant events we have inherited from the twentieth-century, Hiroshima and Auschwitz. With these two atrocities seared into consciousness of the entire globe, it is no wonder that there is a profound fear of a country with what amount to concentration camps also possessing nuclear weapons.
Embedded in the discourse and conduct of these two men is a theory of sovereignty. It is perhaps most obvious in Carlson’s above-mentioned defense of Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un. He goes further than an argument for diplomacy and formulates a theory of sovereignty: leading a country means killing people. He qualifies this assertion, saying that a leader should not kill (or commit atrocities) as much as Kim Jong Un does. Thus, this sovereignty that Carlson theorizes is not applicable to every leader in the same way. We are now dealing with the question of legitimate violence. Bolton too, through his criticism of dialogue with the DPRK and his policy proposals throughout his political career, is making claims about sovereignty and legitimate violence.
In an attempt to come to an understanding of these claims I turn to several theorists, who will provide us with a vocabulary to discuss the way power is operating in this discourse. Two terms that are integral to this study I borrow from Edith Wyschogrod: the death event, and the death-world. Wyschogrod traces the beginning of the death event to World War I: “During World War I a new process burst upon the historical horizon, a multifaceted state of affairs which later included such features as nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare and death camps. I call this social, political and cultural complex the death event” (xii). She defines the death-world in this way: “a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead” (15).
The clearest manifestation of the death-world is the Nazi concentration camp where prisoners are “so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime,” as Giorgio Agamben has famously articulated in Homo Sacer (97). We see this form of social existence, then, in the ICE detention centers. The detainees constitute a population of living dead that can be acted upon with impunity. Thus, Carlson can mock the plight of detained migrants, because they are no longer seen as living human beings in this social arrangement. Wyschogrod powerfully describes how this dehumanization occurs: “[P]ower in the death-world is annihilating force.” She continues, “in relation to the death-world, those who have the power to negate ascribe being and meaning to themselves and non-being to others” (28). This reasoning extends into discussion of nuclear weapons. Wyschogrod argues that “being and meaning depend on non-being as annihilatory power in all the disparate phenomena of the death event, the death-worlds of the camp system and nuclear war lie along the same gradient” (29).
The ability to orchestrate the death event — to organize death-worlds — is emblematic of sovereignty. If we assume this is truly the way sovereignty functions, we must work out an explanation for why Carlson can mock those who die in camps in the United States but express sympathy to the victims of Kim Jong Un’s regime; and why John Bolton can advocate that the United States pull out of restrictive arms agreements while pushing for preemptive strikes against countries that are developing nuclear weapons. The answer to these questions seems laughably obvious. What government wants a potentially hostile nation to have the capability to deal out mass death? Further, demonizing the enemy is an almost cliché component in warfare. However, an investigation into the questions I just raised reveals, I think, a double operation; negating Kim Jong Un’s sovereignty legitimizes the sovereignty of the United States. From this, a theory of exception — that is, exception from law that restricts the ability to bring about mass death — emerges that may help us understand the ideology that Carlson and Bolton espouse.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri illuminate a nefarious meaning in the term American exceptionalism. They argue that, rather than conveying a moral extraordinariness or the embodiment of “republican virtue,” American exceptionalism signifies “exception from the law” (9, 8). They argue that this exception manifests in the refusal of the United States to take part in international agreements, especially agreements that restrict the use of military force (the INF perhaps). Finally, they claim that the foundation of the contemporary state of exception is this meaning of American exceptionalism, the United States’ “exceptional power and its ability to dominate the global order” (9). In other words, American exceptionalism legitimizes the creation of death-worlds. Therefore, Carlson and Bolton might be said to be formulating theories of just death camps and just nuclear war. When North Korea detains people in camps it is a human rights abuse rather than the implementation of a just death camp because legitimizing another country’s exercise of power undermines American exception-alism. If this is true, the claims Carlson and Bolton do more than provide your uncle with Thanksgiving conversation material. They are working to perpetuate the condition of exception that legitimizes the violence of the United States.
Works Not Otherwise Linked
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford UP, 1998.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. The Penguin Press, 2004.
Wyschogrod, Edith. Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Yale UP, 1985.