A few months ago, I learned that Judith Butler was going to give a lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science about the notion of human shields. Butler’s choice for this notion is very likely to have been motivated by its systematic use by the Israeli army during last dreadful summer to justify the two thousand civilians it kills in Gaza, both through bombing and terrestrial invasion. I enthusiastically discovered yesterday that the video of the lecture (that occurred on February 4, 2015) was now available online (see below) and undertook to watch it (twice!). Although Gaza inhabitants are at the core of Butler’s intervention’s first half, she then attempts to articulate a parallel with the numerous killing of unarmed black men and women by white police officers in the United States, thus exiting the legal notion of human shield to prefer the (admittedly fascinating) process by which a body looses a status of civilian, or rather acquires a status of threat within a racist fantasy that proves to be fatal when its author is an armed body, if not a police officer. Feeling that the notion of human shields had then been forgotten from her argument, I felt the urge to go back to it, in order to try making some sense — however minor — out of it.
Butler argues that the only rationale in which a human body/life can be understood as embodying a certain degree of militarization in just being where it is, is an economic rationale: what we could call “economization of life,” following Michelle Murphy (see our conversation in Archipelago). Such a positioning of one body, whether voluntary or not, is based on a what Butler calls a calculation of cost/benefits since the act of putting a body on the line can be necessarily considered as a cost in the extreme fragility and precariousness it constitutes, as Banu Bargu (quoted several times in the lecture) illustrates in her brilliant work about human shields. Nevertheless, Butler notes that “when we speak about voluntary and involuntary human shields, we are from the start talking about designations that take place in language, and for specific reasons: these are discursive formations that are already mobilized in the service of a war effort or in the midst of a war field."
This last quote helps us to understand that the notion of human shield constitutes one of this locutions that envelops the body (see past article), often in a retrospective fashion in place of a legal debate. What it also suggests is that if bodies are on the targeting line, only the legitimacy of their position and, thus, of their capacity to extend the target, is debatable: the target itself is not in question. The case of Rachel Corrie, quoted both by Bargu and Butler, is illustrative of such an interpretation that can only favor the attacker ultimately, since only what it calls “collateral damage” finds itself… on the line of debate. On March 13, 2003, Corrie, a 23-year old American activist was crushed and killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in its attempted destruction of a Palestinian house in Rafah. The debate and lawsuit that followed, despite the fact that they could not possibly be considered as illegitimate, only questioned the death of Corrie — the trial eventually ruled for the accident interpretation — without challenging that against which she put her body in the targeting line.