Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
4Dec/140

Video Archives – “Revenge and the Art of Justice” (2011)

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Thursday, April 7, 2011: “Revenge and the Art of Justice”

Participants:

Roger Berkowitz - Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College.

Roger Berkowitz gave a talk at Haverford College in April 2011. Focusing in on the conceptual relationship between revenge and justice, Berkowitz begins his talk with the story of the Massie trial, a 1932 criminal case which drew national attention. Thomas Massie’s wife was gang-raped by five men who were released by a hung jury in a Hawaiian court. After the trial, Massie conspired with his mother-in-law to kidnap and torture one of the rapists, who died during his violent interrogation. Clarence Darrow himself traveled to Hawaii to defend Massie from the subsequent charges brought against him. Darrow, in the course of his defense, makes two claims about revenge: first, though illegal, it can be just; and second, it is sourced in our animal nature and as such is a fundamental part of human life itself.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Oct/141

Amor Mundi 10/26/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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The Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making "Citizenfour," her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden's true story, and how uncritically Snowden's own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: "The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give 'Citizenfour' the human truth she's always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden's decision. But, in this case, ... Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it's a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras's terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it's a "locked path." He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn't look for ways to complicate him. ... Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn't completely square with others' accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.'s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, "While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography." Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald's questioning."

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: "Adams and his librettist...do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like 'Homeland.' The most specious arguments against 'Klinghoffer' elide the terrorists' bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in 'Schindler's List' compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words 'break his teeth'; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words 'stories of our love.' The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera 'attempts to counterpoise to terror's deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.' Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. 'At least we are not Jews,' an old Swiss woman says. 'I kept my distance,' an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud."

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: "By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the 'masterpiece' its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted 'Hasidism' protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination.... At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba."

Don't Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won't give up on change in Hong Kong: "So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this."

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Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: " I teach Sophocles' 'Antigone.' My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion - for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today - against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle's claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield's helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it's important to remember that what is problematic in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is its hero's aversion to negotiation and compromise - not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger's beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed."

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: "I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet's madness and Hamlet's character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this."

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: "Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie's three large housing projects and the 'Lower End,' three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-'the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.' This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics." MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a "Politically Charged Sentence"

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger's lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger's notation for "National Socialism" as "The Natural Sciences." Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger's original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the "inner truth of National Socialism." In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: "I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger's politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye's division of his 'Bibliography' into categories such as 'Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,' 'Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,' and 'Works Critical of Heidegger,' in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger's own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it."

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center's seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt's works in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Oct/140

The Alternative to Forgiveness

fogiveness punishment

**This post was originally published on June 11th, 2012**

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail in 2012 two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

Andrew T. Dilts
Andrew Dilts is a political theorist whose work focuses broadly on the history of political thought, and in particular, the discursive relationships between political membership, subjectivity, sovereignty, and punishment. He is especially interested in the connections between penal policy, race, and “identity” in the United States.
25Mar/131

Forgiveness

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Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing in order to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly.  Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt relates Augustine’s Christian concept of forgiveness to human action and agency. Forgiveness solves an important problem inherent to the activity of action. Since “men never have been and never will be able to undo or even control reliably any of the processes they start through action,” human beings are met with the disabling reality of processes whose outcomes are both unpredictable and irreversible. Knowing that our actions may lead to evil or unhappiness, why would anyone take the risk of action at all?  Remarkably, Arendt finds the remedy to this predicament within the faculty of action itself. The antidote for irreversibility is forgiveness, which "serves to undo the deeds of the past" by releasing actors from the consequences of their actions.

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The beauty of forgiveness is that it interrupts otherwise automatic processes. For example, forgiveness enables actors to become freed from vengeance, “which encloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.” Within the space created by the interruption, forgiveness creates a new relationship that is radically different from what existed before.

As something startlingly new, forgiveness is not conditioned by the wrong that provokes it and it can therefore never be predicted. Arendt admits as much. She explains, “forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly.”  Released from vengeful reactions, I can act in ways that are not predetermined or compelled by another's trespasses against me. In this sense, forgiveness is an unanticipated, uncaused and undetermined act; is it truly spontaneous. Arendtian forgiveness seems to take on a metaphysical stature; it appears to be able to change the nature of reality, undoing the irreversible. It acts against necessity, undoing what was done by releasing the doer from the deed.

In the last 60 years, notably in tribunals and reconciliation commissions characteristic of transitional justice, forgiveness has become a political and legal ideal in cases where massive moral injury threatens to extinguish human plurality and dignity. Seen as a willingness to continually participate in an imperfect world with civility, those willing to forgive demonstrate the ability to begin again not only despite the social facts of moral injury and misrecognition, but as Arendt teaches, also despite ontological facts of irreversibility, contingency, and unpredictability. Forgiving victims who are able to respond creatively rather than vindictively are said to escape the vicious cycle of violence and exemplify their moral agency.

What does forgiveness really do as a political tool? Arendt's forgiveness responds creatively to the fact of injury. What I’d like to suggest is that Arendt understands forgiveness as a cure for the irreversibility of action, not of violence. Unlike many contemporary (theological and secular) political views that see forgiveness as an act of compassion in response to atrocity, Arendt insists that forgiveness is an activity of politics.

Understood politically, forgiveness is about surviving these effects of irreversibility. Because linear time shapes human experience, irreversibility is unavoidable. Taking aim at what cannot be undone, forgiveness releases actors from what would otherwise become a mechanistic or routinized cycle of retaliation.

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Arendt describes forgiveness as the act of constantly releasing the wrongdoer. Quoting Luke 17:3-4, she says “And if he trespass against thee…and…turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt release him.” If the wrongdoer shows signs of contrition or transformation, he should be released from the trespass.

In his essay about Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann, Roger Berkowitz argues that Arendt adopts the language of release or dismissal (which I find very similar to Nietzsche's understanding of forgetting) in order to characterize the action of forgiveness, a move that greatly limits the scope or reach of forgiveness. Berkowitz explains,

Arendt critically limits the province of forgiveness to minor trespasses… As she notes, the Greek word in the Gospels traditionally translated as “forgiveness” is aphienai, which Arendt suggests means to “dismiss” and “release” rather than “forgive.” As a release, Arendt’s defense of forgiveness does not reach the forgiving of crimes and sins. Instead, forgiveness is limited to the “constant mutual release” that allows men to continue to act in the world.

People can release each other, but the capacity as denoted by the original Greek amounts to dismissal rather than pardon or exoneration.

Whereas forgiveness releases, its opposite, vengeance, binds people to the past crime and to the process of reaction. Vengeance, unlike forgiveness, is not creative of new possibilities for action. Instead, it “acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process. But note that it is the deterministic character that threatens the sphere of action and which morphs a trespass into an unforgiveable crime. The magnitude of the crime is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for crimes against plurality.

Unlike the common imperialist tactic of legalized discrimination, Arendt explains in Eichmann in Jerusalem that war crimes committed by totalitarianism gave rise to the unprecedented:

It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity—in the sense of a crime “against human status,” or against the very nature of mankind—appeared.

She continues,

Expulsion and genocide must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very worlds ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.

Arendt described such actions as those which “transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.” Eichmann’s actions destroyed human potentiality. Arendt cannot forgive such crimes.

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This is our first clue that the offences to which forgiveness responds are within the reach of dismissal, whereas crimes against the human status are not. Moreover, forgiveness releases those who "unknowingly" transgressed. The predicament of action is that people cannot know the consequences of their actions (action is unpredictable). When the act is intended to harm, the law calls for punishment. It would be a mistake therefore to think that Arendtian forgiveness is intended to cure anything outside the realm of action.

It is a striking absence that Arendt did not refer to the concept of forgiveness as it is developed in the Human Condition in her decision in Eichmann in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt wasn't attempting to create a complete system of concepts across her work. As her views changed, her concepts also shifted. But having the limits of Arendt's forgiveness in mind can, I think, nonetheless help us understand her judgment against Eichmann. Because Eichmann’s decisions and rule following annihilated spontaneity and plurality, he cannot be released from his deeds.

-Grace Hunt

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Jun/122

The Alternative to Forgiveness

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable."

- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

George Zimmerman returned to jail last week, two days after his bond was revoked for intentionally deceiving the court about his financial situation. The speed and promptness of this re-incarceration stands in marked contrast to the six weeks that passed between Zimmerman's lethal shooting of  Trayvon Martin, and his arrest and arraignment on charges of second-degree murder.

During these six weeks, it was astonishing to many people that given the Sanford Police department’s astonishing failure to investigate the case properly, and the application of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense, Zimmerman was apparently immune to prosecution (even as similar cases produced vastly different outcomes). Troubled by not simply this fact, but also the explicitly and implicitly racialized context of the case, I found myself deeply invested in seeing Zimmerman arrested, tried, and ultimately punished.

And yet at the same time, as a scholar of punishment in the United States, I hold a deep distrust in a broken criminal justice system that has historically been an instrument in the foundation and maintenance of white supremacy as a political system. As put eloquently at the blog, Low End Theory, "[I]n appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want."

Even if we assume that these are institutions capable of delivering such justice, they are nevertheless predicated on the idea that justice can be delivered through punishing. If we are to "think what we are doing" in terms of punishment and our desire to achieve justice through it, we might do well to revisit Arendt's account of the relationship between punishment and forgiveness.

In The Human Condition, Arendt positions punishment as an alternative to forgiveness, which in turn is defined as similar to promising and the opposite of vengeance. All actions, Arendt argues, are necessarily unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know with certainty what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might otherwise paralyze us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to make promises about the uncertain future and to both seek and grant forgiveness, absolving past harms. Were it not for these faculties we would be unable to reconcile our own finite existence with the fundamental plurality of the human condition. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell" (237). 

Forgiveness can resolve the fact of irreversibility because, Arendt succinctly notes, it is able to put "an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly" (241). This is what distinguishes forgiveness from vengeance. Vengeance is nothing more than the "re-acting against an original trespassing" (240). It is predictable and certain, a “natural” and “automatic reaction.” It cannot be a new action, but only the continuation of the original transgression. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an action par excellence, done freely rather than necessarily. Forgiveness is unpredictable and uncertain. If forgiveness is forced, it doesn't really count. One can only ask for forgiveness; one can never demand it. As such, forgiveness can allow us to begin anew in the face of a transgression because it is "the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven" (241).

But what does it mean for punishment to be “the alternative” to this? Can punishment possibly do the same transcendent work for us? If we seek justice through punishment, can such punitive justice ever be the grounds for natality and freedom?

While we typically affirm the justness of punishment by its distinction from vengeance, it nevertheless must be intimately tied to the specific transgression if it is to be justified. Just punishments must "fit" the specific transgression and excessive, cruel, or unusual punishments are thought to be transgressions themselves. Unlike forgiveness, just punishment must be predictable and certain, applied automatically and universally if it is to be effective and non-arbitrary.  Moreover, if our desire for punishment itself becomes automatic and mechanical, this too marks punishment as reactive rather than free. When we find ourselves automatically turning to punishment in response to transgressions, we not only signal a belief that some set of punitive institutions can render justice, but we also reveal a desire similar to the desire for vengeance: a continuation of the transgression.

For punishment to do the same work as forgiveness–stepping outside and beyond the logic of the original transgression and starting something new–it would seemingly have to be arbitrary rather than regular, and therefore lose a key part of its character as just punishment. For punishment to be both predictable and also capable of starting something new, it would have to be as difficult to embrace as forgiveness, such that it, like forgiveness, might be able to free both the punished and the punisher from the past transgression.

The heart of the difficulty is that we remain caught between the act and the actor, of the task of responding to the unpredictability and irreversibility of actions, when the subject of either forgiveness or punishment is the actor. In this sense, forgiving and punishing both publicly declare that some particular action belongs to a particular actor. For Arendt, we must remember that there is nothing self-evident or automatic about the authorship of actions. In so far as an action "reveals" an agent, Arendt writes, "this agent is not an author or a producer" in isolation from others (184). Punishing and forgiving do not simply "hold" a person responsible for their actions, but rather, in concert with their actions, they produce them as responsible subjects for those actions. Forgiveness, Arendt insists, is thus "always an eminently personal ... affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it" (241). If forgiveness is able to bring an end to the transgression and free both the forgiver and the forgiven by beginning something new, it is because it establishes a new relationship between those persons.

But forgiveness is only able to "undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing," because of this translation from action to agent. When a specific agent is assigned responsibility (or takes responsibility for an action that has turned out badly), one need not forgive the bad act, but rather the person. Forgiveness produces responsible subjects on both sides of the exchange. But when punishment makes this same translation, as Michel Foucault demonstrates, it has historically done so through producing a kind of criminal subjectivity that on the one hand treats the agent as a free subject (responsible for their bad acts) and on the other hand, as a pathological object (irresponsible and thus in need of incarceration and discipline). The relationship established between persons through punishment is neither symmetrical, novel, nor personal. Instead, it purchases the punisher’s freedom through condemning the other to unfreedom. Where forgiveness is a productive success, punishment is a productive failure.

What Arendt seems to recognize in the paradoxical relationship between punishment and forgiveness is that even if punishment is an "alternative" to forgiveness, it nevertheless cannot be a substitute for it. What does it mean, then, that we find ourselves unable to forgive that which we cannot punish, and that we cannot punish that which is unforgivable? In part, it means that we might require institutions of punishment if we have any hope of being able to choose forgiveness. And our desire for punishment might be, in part, a desire for the possibility of forgiveness. Punishment, even as it might fail to resolve the predicament of action, might be the condition of possibility of that resolution. But to exercise it would be fall into the trap of vengeance and unfreedom.

That George Zimmerman appeared, for six long weeks, to be not simply unpunished but immune from punishment carries the mark of a kind of immunity from responsibility that serves as the "hallmark" of "radical evil" (241). In the face of such immunity for the killing of another human–to find ourselves powerless to act–is to be confronted not simply with a bad action, but with an offense that "transcends the realm of human affairs" (241). As Robert Gooding-Williams notes, the evil of this automatic immunity afforded to Zimmerman is neither accidental or novel in the U.S., but is deeply connected to who Trayvon Martin was: a young black man living in a nation that historically deputized all non-black persons as executors of the federal fugitive slave law. For Zimmerman to be automatically deputized to kill Trayvon Martin–to be unpunishable for Martin’s death–would affirm the persistence of the radical evil of chattel slavery in a new form.

But even if our desire for punishment reflects a desire toward forgiveness, the danger of punishment as vengeance follows as well. The same punitive institutions, in order to be just, push us toward the logic of simple reaction, rather than action, of predictability and necessity, rather than natality and freedom. It is worth noting that there are currently more black men supervised by the criminal justice system than were held in slavery in 1850. Our regular and automated reliance on punishment to do the work of justice might itself be both necessary for justice, and yet also itself a radical evil, masked by the notion that it can do the same work as forgiveness.

-Andrew T. Dilts

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.