Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils

Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London and New York: Verso, 2011).

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Review by Etienne Turpin 

“O Pangloss!” exclaimed Candide, “this is a strange genealogy! Wasn’t the devil at the root of it?”

“Not at all,” replied the great man. “It was something indispensible in this best of worlds, a necessary ingredient.”

Beginning with an agile reading of the sequence of disasters that constitute the narrative of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has, in his latest monograph, The Least of All Possible Evils (LPE), initiated another productive foray into our optimized “humanitarian present.” [1] In his previous book, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), Weizman delivered a compelling and comprehensive stratigraphic reading of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, moving through the bio-social-technical assemblages that constitute the conflict, from the polluted aquifers under the West Bank to the airspace regularly patrolled by drones above the Gaza Strip. [2] A key problem created by the Israeli occupation, in Weizman’s designation, was the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) responsibility for the construction and maintenance of housing in the Jenin refugee camp in the north of the West Bank, following an attack by the Israeli military in 2002. The reconstruction of destroyed buildings in the camp by the UNRWA signalled, for Weizman, the “humanitarian paradox” wherein humanitarian relief can simultaneously increase political oppression. The radical architecture research project of Hollow Land clearly anticipates The Least of All Possible Evils, but the new book expands the context for thinking humanitarian interventions among multinational institutions, juridical formations, and spatial configurations, thus positioning the Israeli occupation as an exemplary case within a broader trajectory of pervasive contemporary violence. [3]

It is within this general context that readers of LPE will encounter new conceptual categories to help order the understanding of militarized conflict: “The diffuse body of customs and conventions that make up jus in bello, the laws of war otherwise known as international humanitarian law (IHL), have since the end of the Cold War increasingly become the frame within which the calculation and application of military violence takes place.” [4] Weizman adds, “The juridical categories of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’ seem to be among the most popular terms employed in designing and monitoring state violence.” [5]

Precisely because of the ubiquitous vernacular reference to “disproportionate” violence in media and cultural discourse, Weizman goes on to explain that IHL is not designed to prevent or end wars, but to manage the ways in which militaries wage them; from this perspective, the Panglossian principle of lesser evil operates most effectively as the principle of proportionality. In Weizman’s words: “Different versions of it have been used to describe different types of balancing acts, most often in situations where some rights contradict others, or when individual rights are weighed against public interests, or against administrative or economic policies. Within the context of IHL, however, proportionality is a moderating principle that seeks to constrain the use of force.” [6] As it is codified in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1977, we are reminded that, “Proportionality thus demands the establishment of a proper relation between unavoidable means and necessary ends. Which, considering the choice of military means, the principle calls for a balance to be established between military objectives and anticipated damage to civilian life and property. Proportionality is thus not about clear lines of prohibit-ion but rather about calculating and determining balances and degrees.” [7] It is this proportion of optimized conflict and military aggression — to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, as Aristotle once suggested in the Nicomachean Ethics — that is considered in the subsequent case studies. [8]

In the remainder of the book, Weizman moves through three key cases, first analyzing the difficulties facing Médecins Sans Frontières President Rony Brauman as he navigated the politics of affinity and anonymity during the relief effort for the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s (“Arendt in Ethiopia”); then, explicating the complex visual economy of courtroom models in an Israeli High Court of Justice case, argued by the Jerusalem-based Palestinian human rights lawyer Muhammad Dahla, regarding the legality of the separation wall in the Palestinian village of Beit Sourik (“The Best of All Possible Walls”); and, finally, considering the strange case of Marc Garlasco’s role in Human Rights Watch’s investigations following his role as an analyst in the US Defense Intelligence Agency, where he selected bombing targets and attendant munitions, and conducted “proportionality assessments” in anticipation of military attacks (“Forensic Architecture: Only the Criminal Can Solve the Crime”). These chapters — each provocative enough on its own to demand much greater consideration — provide sufficient material, in Weizman’s estimation, for a more schematic analysis of the shifting role that evidence plays in the prosecution of war crimes; that is, we are asked to track the move from the predominance of witness testimony to an increasing reliance on the expert witness, or more specifically, from the narrative provided by the subject of a given crime, to the objective material evidence of a criminal act. Of course, much is at stake in this transformation of the juridical apparatus, and despite the brevity of Weizman’s conclusions, it is clear that the implications of the shift beckon the attention of political activists and scholars alike.

In the epoch of the European enlightenment, Voltaire was willing to ridicule Leibniz’s theological optimism, wherein the best of all possible worlds was guaranteed by a divine calculus that permitted forms of destructive evil in order to optimize the invisible and mysterious good occurring elsewhere. Currently less subject to ridicule, but certainly no less pernicious, is the condition wherein the optimal forms of destruction called for by new standards of international humanitarian law shield criminal perpetrators whose precise violence increases alongside the suffering of the oppressed who struggle against the paradoxes of our humanitarian present.


[1] An earlier version of the book was published in Italian as Il male minore (Rome: Edizioni Nottetempo, 2009).

[2] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007). For a discussion of evidence within a practice of forensic architecture addressing environmental pollution, see Paulo Tavares, “Murky Evidence: Environmental Forensics in the Age of the Anthropocene,” Cabinet 43 (Fall 2011): 101-105.

[3] Weizman, Hollow Land, 205. For a detailed explanation of the transition from Hollow Land to The Least of All Possible Evils, see Eyal Weizman, “Political Plastic,” Collapse 6 (July 2010): 257-303.

[4] Weizman LPE (2011), 10.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] For a discussion of the aesthetics of forensic architecture in relation to the economy of visual evidence, see Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of Forensic Aesthetics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).


Etienne Turpin is, itinerantly, a teacher, writer, editor, and curator. Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and a lecturer in architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He is principal investigator, with Meredith Miller, of Architecture + Adaptation: Design for Hyper-complexity, and a contributing editor of Scapegoat: Architecture | Landscape | Political Economy. Through these and other projects, Turpin works with colleagues, contributors, collaborators, and students to learn about and through modes of inquiry such as making, building, philosophy, aesthetic confusion and design research. These collaborative efforts work to assemble worlds that can sustain passion, pleasure and conviction.


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