‘What meaning has the concept of murder, when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses?’ Hannah Arendt asks this question of her readers as she attempts to understand the workings of totalitarianism. It may, though, also sound apt for today’s international law and its concepts. Contemporary international lawyers ply their trade knowing full well that significant parts of this law are structurally implicated in and perpetuate on-going economic and social injustices. Yet lawyers idealistically and increasingly resort to international law’s promises. How could our greater recourse to concepts such as universality, aggression, development, humanity or rights (to name but a few) not be tinged with a sense of futility? But this would miss Arendt’s point, for her question is a critique of how we are prone to think with concepts. Recourse to the concept of murder in order to understand, explain and evaluate the known horrors of the concentration camps meant giving in to a certain common sense. It was to concede to the ‘great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations’. Modes of thought or attitudes that seek to reduce the complexities (and horrors) of our social world to inadequate categories are not merely unwarranted but potentially dangerous. It is, after all, not inadequate concepts or attempts to grasp the ungraspable and infinitely complex that Arendt indicts, but rather those who would do so by turning away from life and hence responsibility.
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