Human Shields and Distributions of Killability

This essay is part of a symposium on Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s Human Shields. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire starts with the story of student Rachel Corrie, crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of houses in the West Bank by putting herself in the way. Corrie, a civilian, was killed in a manner that many of us will find difficult even to think about. Yet at the trial in Israel her killing was found to be legal. The military argued that in serving as human shields the group of activists of which Corrie was a part had acted illegally and violently. That is, in using her body as a shield, she had acted as a combatant, annulling the protection she would have been afforded as a civilian. This is the starting point that Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini provide to lead us into their “history of people in the line of fire.”

Human Shields provides a rich, fascinating overview over how people have been deployed, or have deployed themselves, as human shields, drawing on a wide range examples across time and space. Human shielding is shown to have operated in numerous wars, traced in legal regulations pertaining to war and in strategies of warfare, but also highlighted as a practice of environmental protest and an element of computer games. The range of examples covered is sweeping and the stories are told engagingly. The point, as I understand it, is not just to bring human shielding into view as a multi-faceted practice but to raise wider questions about how killing those positioned as human shields comes to be deemed permissible in legal and ethical terms and how this affects wider configurations of legitimate violence, what we might want to call distributions of killability.

The book thus raises and re-evaluates the long-standing question of who may legitimately be killed in war, showing not least how “warmaking and lawmaking processes” are “deeply intertwined” (130). Human shields provide an intriguing angle from which to view and reflect on this question. We are used to thinking in terms of the pernicious effects of warfare on civilians who are predominantly imagined, in law and ethics, as distinct from combatants, as ‘innocent’ in respect of warfare. The ability and willingness to observe discrimination (a term uniquely, I think, in this context bearing a positive connotation)—that is, to distinguish between civilians and combatants and not to target the former—is absolutely central to conceptualizations of legitimate violence, serving not least to contrast our ethical wars from their terrorism.[1] This distinction is, however, much more problematic than is generally admitted.

Human shields pose a problem because they are neither civilians in the strict sense nor combatants (5). That is, the classification on which the legality and legitimacy of killing in war depends becomes impossible (not uniquely, as the authors point out, highlighting irregulars as similarly unclassifiable). This produces “an ethical uncertainty or ambiguity” (8, 12). Crucially, the problem is not one simply of particular people failing to conform with clear classifications; it is one of the classifications themselves. As Gordon and Perugini rightly observe, “the ability to make distinctions and the insistence on their significance continue to be presented as part of the west’s cultural, technological and ethical superiority” (188). This, they suggest, masks the racism involved: in practice the distinction between civilians and combatants is racialized. Discrimination in the sense of distinguishing civilians from combatants is mediated by discrimination as we more commonly understand it. The terminology of Military Aged Males, for example, applied to the racialised populations living in what the west treats as a theatre of war, serves to present the casualties of western violence as really combatants, even if apparently civilians. The logic governing killability then could be said to be not so much that the west only kills civilians, but that those killed by the west cannot be (legitimate) civilians, except perhaps where their killing is positioned as an accident.[2]

Being a civilian is then not the default for any human being, or at least for those racialised as not White, but a status dependent on appropriate behaviour. Human shields are, as civilians, badly behaved (whether voluntary or coerced). Inasmuch as shielding is an act of war, human shields act as combatants and can, this logic says, be targeted. Of course, if the image in our minds is a young (White) woman standing in the way of a military bulldozer, we may find it absurd to consider this an act of war. After all, she appears to be non-violent, indeed even anti-violent, in using her body to deter violence. Yet shields are part of military armour. Protecting infrastructure, weaponry, combatants themselves and any civilians present is undeniably a significant part of war-making. That is, although the shielding in itself may not exercise violence, it may well form part of a violent tactic or strategy. On the other hand, for human shields to be able to function as human shields they have to be recognised not just as human (as the term suggests), but as civilian; for since combatants may be targeted, they cannot serve as a shield. Consequently, human shields are neither combatant nor civilian, and yet simultaneously both. The possibility of conceptualizing a human shield depends on this ambivalence; without it, human shields cannot be signified.

The assessment as to whether killing human shields in wartime is permissible is therefore undecidable.[3] Put differently, in assessing the legitimacy of an act of violence against human shields, a decision has to be made because two incompatible logics are at work: that of “human” civilian—to be protected—and that of shielding as an act in combat. A decision is necessary: there can be no synthesis that resolves the tension. Undecidability is at the heart of any decision; without it there is none. If a resolution of competing demands were possible, there would be no need for a decision. We would just follow the path predetermined by the rules. While the impossibility of resolution means we might experience the situation as an “ordeal,” it is only where such an “impossible decision” has to be made (24) that ethics becomes possible, and responsibility is called for. Highlighting the undecidability called up by human shields thus matters because, if thought through in this way, invoking the rules to justify an act or practice becomes impossible. The reframing of the killing of civilians as permissible because they were human shields, which Gordon and Perugini highlight as a problematic trend, is revealed as a sham. If they had not been civilians at all, they could not have been human shields, whether or not they simultaneously acted within the war (voluntarily or as a result of coercion).

Thinking through the concept of human shields thus draws attention to an evasion of responsibility that states and their militaries like to pursue, namely the presentation of killing civilians as really the fault of the opposing forces (137). The framing of this wide-ranging book suggests to me that this is central to what Gordon and Perugini want us to take away from reading it. Having considered all manner of human shielding, both voluntary and coerced, the final chapter returns to the question of Israel’s production of civilians as human shields and therefore killable and thus links back to Corrie’s death, highlighting what the authors identify as the “almost complete erosion of the civilian in Gaza.” They briefly point more generally to the “increasing precarity of citizenship and the protections that it promises” (217), an observation that left me wanting to hear more. Citizenship is another term that unequally distributes rights, excluding the even more precarious not entitled to whatever protection the status provides. Yet here the book simply ends, missing an opportunity to boldly state its insights in a concluding chapter.

Human Shields clearly opens up new avenues for thinking. It does not finally return to the ambition, formulated at the beginning, however: to show that human shields do not merely serve to protect a target by interposing themselves (or being interposed); rather they “expose structures of power sustaining a particular social reality” (3). It is clear they want to highlight the racism that structures political violence. Whether or not violence is deemed legitimate turns on who is recognised as human, a recognition that has historically been and continues to be, racialized (42). Killability is therefore structured by racism. This is significant, though more might have been said about how this works exactly, not least as the book opens up with Corrie’s killing, whose Whiteness is not discussed. They go beyond this, however: human shields, they seem to argue, have become more killable (138). Ultimately, this means that the violence of war has been enhanced, something that I trace elsewhere as an integral part of what I call “ethical war.”[4] That is, the politics of human shields have promoted an expansion of killability, the opposite of what the tactic, at least where employed voluntarily, appears to aim for. At the same time, as Gordon and Perugini beautifully put it, the “figure of the human shield unsettles the ethics of violence”, particularly for those who aspire to be “humane” (12). What they draw attention to through the framing they choose is the increasing violence of those who consider themselves ethical. In this telling, the unsettling seems to have lost out against the appropriation of violence as ethical, perhaps reflecting the “structures of power.”


[1] Maja Zehfuss, “Killing Civilians: Thinking the Practice of War,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 14, no.  3 (March 2012): 423-440; Maja Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018).

[2] Maja Zehfuss, “Targeting: Precision and the Production of Ethics,” European Journal of International Relations 17, no. 3 (October 2010): 543-556.

[3] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” trans. Mary Quaintance, in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. David Gray Carlson, Drucilla Cornell, and Michel Rosenfeld (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4] Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics.

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About Maja Zehfuss

Maja Zehfuss is Professor of International Politics at The University of Manchester. Her War and the Politics of Ethics (OUP 2018), which received an Honourable Mention for the British International Studies Association Susan Strange Prize, argues that the production of war as ethical relies on an impossible but obscured separation between ethics and politics, enabling and even enhancing its violence. She is the co-editor of Global Politics: A New Introduction, 3rd ed (Routledge 2019), Chair of the Editorial Committee at Manchester University Press and co-editor of Review of International Studies. Her current research explores the politics of making of migrants.