In the course of the twentieth century, witnessing of disasters and wars became the preferred moral response to horrific events. But along with the growing importance ascribed to witnessing, it has begun to be perceived as an act that is demanding, challenging, and difficult to perform. This book traces several of the historical factors that helped make witnessing a widespread and valued public act but also a predictable failure. The author considers the far-reaching discussions of the limitations of witnessing and the circumstances required for it to be done well, focusing on several decisive historical junctures: after World War I, following the Holocaust, and in light of the political disasters in Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, and other places in the 1990s.
The Ethics of Witnessing: A History of a Problem reveals the varied tasks, tools, and difficulties of witnessing and argues that the difficulty in representing the horrors of the Holocaust is far from characterizing all the crises facing the act of witnessing in our time. In so doing, the book also reveals an unknown chapter in nongovernmental political history and points out its deep connections with the new perception of the witness as a moral personality. The author argues that planning and careful attention are required to perform this role, which demands more than just occasional spectatorship or documentation of harms.