Why Should We Read Agamben in the Era of Muslim Ban?

In January 2004, Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, refused to travel to the United States to teach at New York University after biometric security measures such as retina scans and fingerprints were introduced to U.S. visas in the wake of the September 11 attack. Agamben’s account of biometric identification stated that gathering biological data to track citizens all but epitomizes the same sense of identifying Jewish inmates with their tattooed numbers during the Holocaust. In fact, only the form of that loathsome aggression has changed in time, not its repellent character.

In his insightful book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Agamben used two Ancient Greek terms—Zoe, or animal life; and Bios, or qualified life—to designate a specific group of citizens who are being deprived of human life (bios), and thus, are confined only to the biological one (zoe). At the heart of these conceptions to which Agamben made lay the concept of Homo Sacer: a banned man, devoid of the least bit of civil rights, who can be tortured, mutated, or even killed with perfect impunity. Historically, Homo Sacer draws its roots from ancient Roman law and denotes a criminal who has been banned from all of his rights as a citizen. For Agamben, the new totalitarianism, of which the post 9/11 America is a good example, tends to convert a citizen from human to Homo Sacer: one that can be easily bracketed off or readily suspended from because his life has been…

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