I hate the need of some people to make monsters of others. I am a humanist. No matter what another person has done, he or she is still a person. This point may seem simple, and in little need of making, but in the noise of the present day media machine, I think it is actually easy to forget.
When I say a killer or a terrorist is nonetheless still a person, why is it assumed I am lessening or softening their offense? Not at all. Precisely because they violated the humanity of other people through killing, they are guilty of an essential betrayal.
Those who insist that Hitler or Saddam Hussein are not human – monsters – are guilty of a betrayal similar (if far smaller, of course) to the ones they carried out. Just as killers deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their killing, pseudo-moralists must deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their task. What is their task? To divide the human race between humans and “monsters.” I am not going to argue that this moral division is as serious as the bloody division of life and death perpetrated by killers.
But consider this: the beginning of killing is symbolic and moral. Hitler only succeeded in his task of killing because the prerequisite moral and symbolic segregation was accomplished. So in this present day “War on Terror” I insist on the humanity of terrorists. Why? For the simple reason that demonizing them is preparing the way for atrocities committed by us in the name of right.
In other words, we are preparing the way to follow in the de-humanizing footsteps of those we hate. We hunger to become like them. When one hungers to become a terrorist – a hunger many Americans feel – morality becomes a burden.
But I insist on this: morality is a joy and a freeing force. Morality frees me from hate and allows me to judge wrongdoing rationally, without myself becoming a wrongdoer. It worries me that so many Americans are eager to join in terrorism: first symbolic and moral, and finally actual.
In Harlem I passed a man wearing a T-shirt reading, "I support terrorist prisoner abuse." Such a statement is simply a hunger for revenge, as well as politically lazy. The very point is that without a proper procedure one does not in fact know whether people in custody are "terrorists." To simply trust the president is to believe that executive omniscience trumps facts.
What I want to point to, however, is that the slogan avoided the word "torture." Why this linguistic delicacy? I think this slight veil or censorship is the fig leaf that allows people to, on the one hand, divide the world into good and evil, and on the other, to pretend that they belong only in the former camp. We are copying the terrorists, goes the thinking, but we maintain a tiny symbolic difference that proves our superiority.
The other day I heard a typical symbolic or linguistic example of this thinking. I was listening to National Public Radio’s “On Point.” One of Tom Ashbrook’s guests was a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer. When asked about the situation in Pakistan, this woman said that the country was indeed home to “virulent” Muslims, and the borderlands with Afghanistan was a place where the Taliban movement is “nesting.”
I object to these descriptions because in dehumanizing those people, we participate in the logic of terror, we copy the tactics of those we fight. Could the attackers of 9-11 have carried out that act without first designating those attacked as cockroaches, less than human? Why, I ask, are Americans so eager to follow in their footsteps? While seeming to fight terrorists, these Americans – including the journalist from Philadelphia – dream of becoming them.
Hate is not essentially immoral. Hate is an important moral force. What is deeply immoral is to dehumanize. Dehumanization is a betrayal.