Few months ago, New York Times reported that the Obama administration has re-defined the term “militant” to mean: “all military-age males in a strike zone” — the ultimate expression of the rancid dehumanizing view that Muslims are inherently guilty of being Terrorists unless proven otherwise.
When Obama’s campaign surrogate and former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the US killing by drone strike of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman Awlaki two weeks after his father was killed, Gibbs unleashed one of the most repulsive statements heard in some time:
that Abdulrahman should have “had a more responsible father.” Even when innocent Muslim teenagers are killed by US violence, it is their fault, and not the fault of the US and its leaders.
MUSLIMS ARE SYSTEMATICALLY DEHUMANIZED. AMERICANS VIRTUALLY NEVER HEAR ABOUT THE MUSLIMS KILLED BY THEIR GOVERNMENT’S VIOLENCE.
by Glenn Greenwald
Every war – particularly protracted ones like the “War on Terror” – demands sustained dehumanization campaigns against the targets of the violence. Few populations will tolerate continuous killings if they have to confront the humanity of those who are being killed. The humanity of the victims must be hidden and denied. That’s the only way this constant extinguishing of life by their government can be justified or at least ignored. That was the key point made in the extraordinarily brave speech given by then-MSNBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield in 2003 after she returned from Iraq, before she was demoted and then fired: that US media coverage of US violence is designed to conceal the identity and fate of its victims.
The violence and rights abridgments of the Bush and Obama administrations have been applied almost exclusively to Muslims. It is, therefore, Muslims who have been systematically dehumanized. Americans virtually never hear about the Muslims killed by their government’s violence. They’re never profiled. The New York Times doesn’t put powerful graphics showing their names and ages on its front page. Their funerals are never covered. President Obama never delivers teary sermons about how these Muslim children “had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” That’s what dehumanization is: their humanity is disappeared so that we don’t have to face it.
But this dehumanization is about more than simply hiding and thus denying the personhood of Muslim victims of US violence. It is worse than that: it is based on the implicit, and sometimes overtly stated, premise that Muslims generally, even those guilty of nothing, deserve what the US does to them, or are at least presumed to carry blame.
Just a few months ago, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration has re-defined the term “militant” to mean: “all military-age males in a strike zone” – the ultimate expression of the rancid dehumanizing view that Muslims are inherently guilty of being Terrorists unless proven otherwise. When Obama’s campaign surrogate and former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the US killing by drone strike of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman Awlaki two weeks after his father was killed, Gibbs unleashed one of the most repulsive statements heard in some time: that Abdulrahman should have “had a more responsible father”. Even when innocent Muslim teenagers are killed by US violence, it is their fault, and not the fault of the US and its leaders.
All of this has led to rhetoric and behavior that is nothing short of deranged when it comes to discussing the Muslim children and other innocents killed by US violence. I literally have never witnessed mockery over dead children like that which is spewed from some of Obama’s hard-core progressive supporters whenever I mention the child-victims of Obama’s drone attacks. Jokes like that are automatic. In this case at least, the fish rots from the head: recall President Obama’s jovial jokes at a glamorous media dinner about his use of drones to kill teeangers (sanctioned by the very same political faction that found Bush’s jokes about his militarism – delivered at the same media banquet several years earlier – so offensive). Just as is true of Gibbs’ deranged and callous rationale, jokes like that are possible only when you have denied the humanity of those who are killed. Would Newtown jokes be tolerated by anyone?
Dehumanization of Muslims is often overt, by necessity, in US military culture. The Guardian headline to Monbiot’s column refers to the term which Rolling Stones’ Michael Hastings reported is used for drone victims: “bug splat”. And consider this passage from an amazing story this week in Der Spiegel (but not, notably, in US media) on a US drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, who had to quit because he could no longer cope with the huge amount of civilian deaths he was witnessing and helping to cause:
“Bryant and his coworkers sat in front of 14 computer monitors and four keyboards. When Bryant pressed a button in New Mexico, someone died on the other side of the world. . . .
“[H]e remembers one incident very clearly when a Predator drone was circling in a figure-eight pattern in the sky above Afghanistan, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) away. There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs, as Bryant recalls. When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact. . . .
“With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.
“Second zero was the moment in which Bryant’s digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.
“Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
“‘Did we just kill a kid?’ he asked the man sitting next to him.
“‘Yeah, I guess that was a kid,’ the pilot replied.
“‘Was that a kid?’ they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
“Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. ‘No. That was a dog,’ the person wrote.
“They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?”
Seeing Muslim children literally as dogs: few images more perfectly express the sustained dehumanization at the heart of US militarism and aggression over the last decade.
Citizens of a militaristic empire are inexorably trained to adopt the mentality of their armies: just listen to Good Progressive Obama defenders swagger around like they’re decorated, cigar-chomping combat veterans spouting phrases like “war is hell” and “collateral damage” to justify all of this. That is the anti-Muslim dehumanization campaign rearing its toxic head.
There’s one other issue highlighted by this disparate reaction: the question of agency and culpability. It’s easy to express rage over the Newtown shooting because so few of us bear any responsibility for it and – although we can take steps to minimize the impact and make similar attacks less likely – there is ultimately little we can do to stop psychotic individuals from snapping. Fury is easy because it’s easy to tell ourselves that the perpetrator – the shooter – has so little to do with us and our actions.
Exactly the opposite is true for the violence that continuously kills children and other innocent people in the Muslim world. Many of us empowered and cheer for the person responsible for that. US citizens pay for it, enable it, and now under Obama, most at the very leastacquiesce to it if not support it. It’s always much more difficult to acknowledge the deaths that we play a role in causing than it is to protest those to which we believe we have no connection. That, too, is a vital factor explaining these differing reactions.
Please spare me the objection that the Newtown shooting should not be used to make a point about the ongoing killing of Muslim children and other innocents by the US. Over the last week, long-time gun control advocates have seized on this school shooting in an attempt to generate support for their political agenda, and they’re perfectly right to do so: when an event commands widespread political attention and engages human emotion, that is exactly when one should attempt to persuade one’s fellow citizens to recognize injustices they typically ignore. That is no more true for gun control than it is the piles of corpses the Obama administration continues to pile up for no good reason – leaving in their wake, all over the Muslim world, one Newtown-like grieving ritual after the next.
As Monbiot observed: “there can scarcely be a person on earth with access to the media who is untouched by the grief of the people” in Newtown. The exact opposite is true for the children and their families continuously killed in the Muslim world by the US government: huge numbers of people, particularly in the countries responsible, remain completely untouched by the grief that is caused in those places. That is by design – to ensure that opposition is muted – and it is brutally effective.
President Obama, the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has just been bestowed by TIME Magazine with the equally prestigious and meaningful accolade of 2012 Person of the Year.
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For the past 10 years, Glenn was a litigator in NYC specializing in First Amendment challenges, civil rights cases, and corporate and securities fraud matters. He is the author of the New York Times Best-Selling book, How Would A Patriot Act?, a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released May, 2006.
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