The Sovereign Right to Maim and Repair

In her book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, Jasbir Puar looks into the settler-colony of Israel in Palestine to bring forth a crucial understanding of sovereignty and its relation to the body. She specifically analyses the deliberate maiming techniques used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) which attempts to keep Palestinian casualties low to deflect attention, sympathy, and solidarity from the Palestinian struggle–as the “injured do not count in the dry statistics of tragedy” (p.131). This is evident in the Israeli linguist Tanya Reinhart’s analysis of “the policy of injuries” during the second intifada in which she cites interviews with IDF soldiers from the Jerusalem Post. Reinhart presents how injuring Palestinians has remained Israeli military policy as the trained Israeli units shoot in a calculated manner to cripple. An example she selects is from an interview with Israeli sharpshooter Sergeant Raz of the Nashon Battalion, who proclaims: “I shot two people … in their knees. It’s supposed to break their bones and neutralize them but not kill them” (p.131). Also, by shedding a light on how crucial infrastructures, such as the water system and the targeting of the professional class, are being maimed in Gaza, Puar presents the committing of a form of “infrastructural violence” by the IDF. So, the target of Israel is not only life “but resistance itself” (p.135). It is from this point onwards that Puar brings up the concept of the sovereign’s “right to maim”, which will be the focus of this writing.

A crucial concept that Michel Foucault has introduced is biopolitics. According to him, before the establishment of modern states, in times of divine-claimed kings, sovereign juridical power was in fact only a power to ‘take life or let live‘. However, with the formation of modern institutions and the rise in the usage of biomedical and statistical methods over populations, Foucault sees the emergence of biopolitics—which is a sort of political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject: “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order”, to make live and to let die. And he calls the mechanisms of power that facilitate biopolitics and the ways in which biopolitics is put to work in society as biopower. Achille Mbembe, on the other hand, argues that contemporary state-sponsored death, be it in the forms of wars, genocides, refugee “crisis”, cannot be explained by the theories of biopower and biopolitics. Thus, Mbembe introduces another term called necropolitics which entails the “subjugation of life to the power of death” and under the conditions which “the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred”. So, Mbembe’s necropolitics is more than the sovereign’s right to kill, but also the right to expose other people (including own citizens) to death. Jasbir Puar, however, sees that the discussions of biopolitics and necropolitics must be intertwined and presents this through the practice of maiming.

Her knitting of the concepts is apparent when she writes “maiming as intentional practice expands biopolitics beyond simply the question of ‘right of death and power over life’. Maiming becomes a primary vector through which biopolitical control is deployed in colonized space and hence not easily demarcated ‘necro’ as it is mapped in Mbembe’s reworking of biopolitics” (p.136). And returning to what she refers to as “vectors”, such as make/let die/live, Puar sees that the sovereign right to maim “implicates all of the other vectors at once—make die and make live (because in some cases debilitation can be harnessed into ‘compliant’ disability rehabilitation), as well as let live and let die, a version of slow death, a gradual decay of bodies that are both overworked and underresourced” (p.139). If we are to think in terms of slow death, maiming functions as “will not let die”. And if are also to add the humanitarian complement, which seeks to preserve life, then maiming also operates as “will not make die”. Thus, “maiming masquerades as ‘let live’ when in fact it acts as ‘will not let die’. For example, the IDF policy of shooting to maim, not to kill, is often misperceived as a preservation of life. In this version of attenuated life, neither living nor dying is the aim. Instead, ‘will not let die’ and ‘will not make die’ replace altogether the coordinate ‘make live’ or ‘let die’ It is not only the right to kill but also the right to maim that is being exercised as the domain of sovereignty”. (p.139).

In another example that Puar provides, the deputy general of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities of Water utilities, after the debilitation of Gazan infrastructure, makes a statement saying “There is no water reaching any of the houses right now. We’re facing a real catastrophe. Sewage pumps cannot work because the power plant has been destroyed, so we have sewage looding the streets of Gaza. We can’t assess the extent of the damage as we can’t even go out without risking our lives right now. We had ive staf members killed while doing repair work, another two were killed at home with their families. It will take more than US$20 million to rebuild the water and sewage networks, but there’s no way they can be rebuilt under blockade. We have the total collapse of all essential services and there’s nothing we can do about it. Believe me, it would be better if the Israelis just dropped the nuclear bomb on Gaza and get done with it. This is the worst ever assault on the Gaza Strip.” (p.140)—which presents how debilitation is rendered a fate worse than death and also the way the Gazan mocks Israel’s liberal democratic investment in humanitarian gestures of “let live”. “It is as if withholding death—will not let or make die—becomes an act of dehumanization: the Palestinians are not even human enough for death” (p.141).

Puar further touches upon how debilitation, along with being a form of sovereign power, can be capitalized to extract profit. As part of the public health crisis in Gaza, “post-onslaught donor conferences raise billions of dollars for rebuilding infrastructure in Gaza—capitalist accumulation that ultimately feeds back into Israel’s regime—despite the inevitability that Israel will destroy Gaza again. […] Materials to rebuild Gaza are subjected to massive administrative oversight by Israel and the UN because of fears that cement will be used to rebuild the tunnels. […] Thus one interpretation here is that the debilitation of Gazans is not only capitalized upon in neoliberal economic order that thrives on the profitability of debility, as is the case elsewhere, but that Gazans must be debilitated in order to make (their) life (lives) productive” (p.145-146). And so, it could be said that along with the right to maim, Israel “is also exercising a sovereign ‘right to repair’, one that reaps profit through a speculative withholding and distribution of rehabilitation that is tactical, conditional, and controlled through Israel’s security doctrine” (p.147).

Puar, Jasbir K. The right to maim. Duke University Press, 2017.

Painting by Imad Abu shtayyah titled We shall return

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