The Columbus Dispatch recently ran a cartoon depicting Iran as a sewer with cockroaches crawling out of it and infesting neighboring countries. Enough has been written about how racist this cartoon is—and how reminiscent it is of Nazi and Hutu genocidal propaganda—so I won’t spend any time on that. What is missing from the hoopla surrounding this cartoon is any talk of how national–security rhetoric generally and inevitably dehumanizes entire nations.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush repeatedly assured Americans and the world that his beef was not with the entire Muslim or Arab world, that his quarrel was not even with the people of Iraq. Rather, we were told Iraq would be a stage of the global War on Terror because its leader was a dictator who was collaborating with Al Qaeda and could potentially put his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons at the disposal of international terrorists. Of course, we now know that there were no WMDs in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein—brutal and murderous though he was—had no links to Al Qaeda. Today, all Iraqis have to show for our trouble is a destabilized and increasingly violent country in which people have to do without recently available basic services like round-the-clock electricity and sewage treatment. Iraqi women are afraid to leave their homes for fear of being raped or worse, men are routinely kidnapped and murdered simply for going about their lives, and sectarian violence yields ever-increasing death tolls.
Yet the majority of Americans continue to hem and haw about the best way out. Opinion is divided on whether to send more troops, withdraw some troops, pull out entirely, and when and in what manner to pursue or abandon any course of action. The arguments over what to do or not do mostly revolve around the number of American casualties, how much the war is costing, and whether Americans are now more or less likely to be the victims of a terrorist attack. In other words, very few Americans are basing their opinions about what should be done on what’s best for the Iraqi people. The rightness or wrongness of this war is almost always judged from Americans’ point of view and almost never from Iraqis’ vantage point. One exception is the argument that if US troops were to leave Iraq, their departure would be followed by a bloodbath. But although this argument is constantly put forward, we never see any Iraqis who support a continued US presence in their country.
Why is this? Because what Iraqis think doesn’t matter to us. In the process of convincing ourselves that Iraq posed an existential threat to the US, we forgot that Iraqis are people too. National–security discourse is concerned mainly with the protection of one state’s population against attack by another state, so it’s inevitable that the people of the other state will gradually become devalued and eventually dehumanized. Take two hypothetical states, A and B, locked in a war of words. As the people of State A are whipped into a frenzy of fear and paranoia by continuous official reminders that State B poses an imminent threat, they can’t help but begin to fear, and then loathe, the people of State B. Having been convinced that they have to choose between their own survival and that of their “enemy,” the people of State A will not only ignore, mitigate, or deny violence done to ”the other side,” they will eventually welcome and celebrate it. It becomes a matter simply of kill or be killed because the people of State A now believe that in order for them to live, others must be killed. Hermann Goering, Reichsmarshall and head of the Luftwaffe summed it up:
. . . voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Once the people of State B have been defined as a threat, it’s a short rhetorical step for them to be equated with other threats like viruses, cockroaches, snakes, poisonous mushrooms, etc. State B is a threat so it’s people are dangerous. Viruses and snakes are dangerous too. Ergo, the people of State B are viruses and snakes. What do you do to snakes and viruses when you want to protect yourself? You kill them. But such analogies are seldom made by official spokespeople. Rather, that task is left to journalists and radio personalities.
Ultimately, the essential ingredient for war is fear. Without fear, there can be no hatred. Without hatred, there can be no dehumanization. And without dehumanization, there can be no war. To be sure, organized international terrorism is a legitimate threat but international politics—constructed as a system of states versus states—makes no room for nuance so states can only make war on states. The human tendency to generalize also gets some of the blame. Thus, a nation that produces a handful of terrorists is seen as a nation of terrorists, in the same way that a nation run by a brutal dictator is seen to be brutal. In the international sphere, states derive power and legitimacy from their people. In order to break the power of a state, its power base (i.e., people) must be broken, and there are few better means than war for accomplishing this. Hateful propaganda, like the cartoon in the Dispatch, plays a pivotal role by paving the way to war. Long before the first bomb is dropped or the first shot fired, the people are primed to fear, primed to hate, and primed to tolerate unspeakable violence against their enemies. In other words, they are primed for war.
The cartoon in the Columbus Dispatch clearly shows that some in the US have decided that Iran is enough of a threat to justify a dehumanizing comparison between its people and cockroaches. We can only hope that as a nation, we Americans do not fear Iran enough to allow our government to start yet another war in the Middle East.
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