Dehumanization

D. R.
12 min readOct 16, 2023

Content Warning: Sensitive topics related to war, genocide, and extremely disturbing imagery.

U.S. Army enlistment poster from 1918, depicting German soldiers as ape-like and raping a woman.

There has been an endless stream of opinions, articles, analysis, and propaganda unleashed in response to the events occurring in Palestine and Israel that began following the fundamentalist group Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7th. The ongoing response by the Israeli government and military has resulted in an estimated 2,500–4,000+ Palestinian deaths (double the current total of estimated Israeli fatalities as of Oct. 16th) and the displacement of millions from the northern half of the Gaza Strip.

I have nothing to add to that stream, my opinion has been reiterated ad nauseam by countless individuals much more qualified to speak on it than an Irish-Italian kid from Long Island. Yet, the rhetoric I have seen expressed from the most extreme of those invested in this conflict (a vocal minority, mind you) has served as a grim reminder of how quickly we can turn towards our darker instincts in times of strife, sorrow, horror, and anger.

Before I cast judgement on anyone, I will admit right off the bat that I have lived a relatively comfortable life, first in the suburbs of Long Island, then in New York City — one of America’s safest big cities. I have friends and family that are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, etc.

I have not been woken up by the neighboring apartment building being bombed, or the sound of rockets streaking across the sky. I have not had my movement limited by an occupying force’s military, or faced discrimination for my ethnicity or religion.

I have not witnessed members of my family be killed in front of me, either at the end of a rifle or from the impact of a bomb.

But, as is crucial to maintaining that oh so precious thing we call civil society, I am able to extend empathy to those who have. And, more importantly, listen to what they say.

And what have some of these people been saying?

“Destroy this mad brute.”

An American war bonds poster from 1942

The Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii resulted in the deaths of 2,403 Americans — 68 of which were civilians. The attack came as a surprise in the early Hawaiian morning. 4 years later, the United States had the island of Japan surrounded.

In the early morning of August 6th, a lone B-29 Superfortress flew over the the port city of Hiroshima. The dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of an estimated 129,000 to 226,000 people, a large majority of which were civilians.

“And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered…”

On September 11th, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives flew 3 commercial airlines into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., killing nearly 3,000. Al-Qaeda, an Islamic fundamentalist group, had targeted America in an effort to drag the nation into a costly war in the Middle East that would lead to its collapse —similar to what happened to the Soviet Union with its excursion in Afghanistan.

America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 led to the deaths of an estimated 243,000 people–70,000 were civilians.

“And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered…”

Japanese-Americans, viewed with suspicion by their fellow countrymen, were interned, or concentrated, in camps to prevent potential sabotage on behalf of the Empire of Japan. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians as a result of the atomic bombs was justified by the leaders of America as necessary to ensure an invasion of the island of Japan, an invasion that many believe would have resulted in far more deaths of both Americans and Japanese, did not need to occur.

Muslim Americans, and anyone who appeared to be Islamic or Arabic in any way, were profiled and harassed by their fellow countrymen and their own government following the September 11th attacks. The government, emboldened by the population’s bloodlust and desire for revenge, engaged in a war that characterized the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and children as merely “collateral damage.”

The indigenous people of North America, long after they were forcefully driven by the military into their meager reservations, were depicted in American media as savage brutes that had no concept of civilization, let alone peace. The stereotype of the blood-crazed brave, wielding a tomahawk with the intent to scalp a helpless white woman, allowed Americans to feel guiltless about their conquest of this glorious, “God-given” land.

Jewish Germans made up less than 1% of their nation’s population, an estimated 560,000 people. Yet, the rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei was fueled with their scapegoating of Germany’s Jewish population for the loss of The Great War and the economic woes that plagued the nation. The NSDAP came to power in 1933. 12 years later, 6 million Jews (and 3 million Slavs, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, physically and mentally disabled people, and more) were dead.

German citizens were forced to see the death camps — forced to see the judgment that the king had rendered.

“A German girl is overcome with emotion as she walks past the corpses of 800 forced laborers murdered by S.S. guards. The bodies have been exhumed by the U.S. military so that the residents of the area can see this crime. They have to bury the corpses again a few days later. Naring, Germany, May 17, 1945.” — AnneFrankHouse.org

I am a firm believer that most human beings are driven by good intentions and do not wish harm on their fellow man. Rather, the conflicts and horrors that have defined much of our collective history were driven primarily by the machinations of petty tyrants and psychopathic individuals — small bands of the most exploitative bastards our species is capable of providing.

Yet, many of humanity’s most horrific actions were only possible due to the masses calling for it. Lost in the fervor of bloodlust, swept up in the hypnotic allure that a mob possesses, only the shocking realities of war arriving at their doorstep was enough to shake them out of their trance.

The most common defense uttered at Nuremberg by the members of Germany’s National Socialist Worker’s Party was that they were simply doing what they had been ordered to do — “Befehl ist Befehl,” — as Abraham likely said to Isaac on the mountain.

The judges of Nuremberg ruled that this defense did not hold any merit. They argued that we are bound to a higher duty, that of the preservation of human rights and life. They ruled that, yes — we are our brother’s keeper.

Thus, to circumvent that obligation, we must turn our brother into a brute.

U.S. soldier Sabrina Harman poses with the decaying corpse of an Iraqi soldier, smiling broadly and giving a thumbs-up, in the Abu Ghraib Military Prison in Iraq, 2003

The only way nations have been able to convince their populace to wage an offensive war against their chosen enemy is through the process of dehumanization.

Americans were told that the Japanese, who only a few years prior were viewed as strong allies in the Pacific, were in fact buck-toothed and yellow-skinned savages with the sole desire to destroy America and her people. The atrocities of the Japanese military against the people of China and other occupied territories in Asia (and the absolute horrors stemming from the actions of Japan’s Unit 731) were made possible by their government’s emphasis on Japanese ethnic supremacy over the rest of their Asiatic brethren.

The fierce and unwavering brutality by the German military machine on the Eastern Front was a result of the characterization of all “Bolsheviks” as simply another facet of the world-wide Jewish conspiracy against the German people. The reciprocal brutality of the Red Army, particularly the mass rape of German women, was a horrific consequence of the same hatred being returned in full.

The Soviet people witnessed the progress of their nation destroyed under the tracks of German tanks; their people raped, imprisoned, and slaughtered.

How can one maintain their humanity towards others when they are denied the same?

Japanese soldiers burying Chinese prisoners alive during the “Rape of Nanking”, 1937

There is suffering occurring in every corner of our globe.

There are Uighurs in Xinjiang who watch on helplessly as their culture is swept away and their people are interned.

Muslims in India watch as their nation, the world’s largest democracy, continues to empower an autocratic Hindu nationalist — one who oversaw an anti-Muslim pogrom in his own community.

Ukrainians still race for shelter under the threat of Russian missile strikes. Russian youths leave their families to fight for a man who is willing to sacrifice their lives for personal, imperial aspirations.

Migrants, hoping to escape the immense poverty and repression in their home countries south of the American border, drown in the Rio Grande or are caught on barbed wire as they seek refuge in the “land of the free.”

A Masalit mother, trying to escape to Chad from Darfur with her 23-month old baby on her back, witnessed her child’s execution at the hands of a soldier of the Rapid Support Forces — due solely to the fact that the baby would grow up to be a man.

It is no wonder so many of us succumb to anger. That so many of us allow ourselves to fall under the sway of leaders who claim that only they can end this suffering and bring peace to their chosen people. That so many of us are willing to forget our obligation to our brothers, sisters, children, neighbors.

That so many of us are willing to forget that there is in fact a human being at both ends of the rifle.

Not all conflict is unjust. Defensive conflict is justified, the oppressed against the oppressor. It would be nice to pretend that every crisis could be resolved with a handshake and a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya.” But, as history has shown us, progress through peace is the exception, rather than the rule.

The Indian Wars were the last attempts of Indigenous Americans to fight back against the genocide that relegated them to scraps of land, alien and unfamiliar to their forefathers.

When faced with defeat, and acknowledging that any further conflict would only ensure the complete extinction of his people, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said the following in his surrendor to the United States military:

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

In 2023, the Nez Perce, once stretching from the shores of Oregon to the Sierra Nevada mountains, are now relegated to a reservation located in Idaho — a mere fraction of their former land.

America, claiming “manifest destiny” drove the inhabitants of this land into its most undesirable corners and kept the rest for themselves. We erased their culture, took their children from them with the aim of “civilizing” them. Gave them whiskey, denied them rights.

Killed them, with a permission slip from God.

If you were to ask a U.S. cavalryman whether the savagery against the indigenous people of this land was justified, and that soldier just happened to be one of many primarily German-speaking immigrants that made the American Midwest their home, they might have said “Befehl ist Befehl” in response.

“And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered…”

The U.S. Military collects the corpses of 300 murdered Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee — 3 days after the massacre due to a blizzard that swept the region. The Lakota were slaughtered for performing the “Ghost Dance”, a banned practice that the army believed to be precipitating an armed uprising.

There is no easy answer to any of this.

The average person in this world exists at the mercy of world leaders who haven’t yet rid themselves of us simply because they need us to do the work that keeps them rich, fight the wars that give them land. Make them feel important.

In the Levant, there are those who watch the growing divisions between their own residents and people across the globe with glee.

The leader of Hamas lives in luxury in the nation of Qatar — watching on a flatscreen television as the Palestinians he claims to seek the liberation of scurry down a highway on foot, fleeing missiles paid for by the “land of the free” and fired by a nation that is de facto responsible for their well-being.

The leaders of Israel’s right-wing government, those who refuse to accept the possibility of a Palestinian state and enable groups like Hamas to grow in power by refusing to negotiate in good faith, watch with glee as the hatred they need to stay in power grows daily.

The voices of the tolerant, those unwilling to be blinded by hate — those seeking justice in a righteous manner — are silenced by the roar of rockets and the shrieks of innocent life being snuffed out for the whims of the powerful few.

When we discuss the death of innocents as simple arithmetic, “the unfortunate cost of war”, we lose that which makes us more than just another one of Earth’s deadly, mindless animals — our humanity.

John Brown, the “radical” abolitionist driven by a faith rivaling the most celebrated prophets in the Abrahamic canon, said the following in reference to his war against slavery in America:

“I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had… vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

This would turn out to be true. 618,222 dead Americans later and chattel slavery was ended by the hammering of a gavel in the United States Congress. Blood ensured that bill was written, nothing else.

President Harry Truman, in rationalizing the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, said the following:

“The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

2,600,000–3,100,000 Japanese died in the war before the stars and stripes flew over Tokyo — before Pearl Harbor was “avenged.” 64,752 American servicemen died in the Pacific in pursuit of that revenge.

What is the appropriate amount of death and suffering for a people to suffer or inflict before justice is achieved?

The defeat of Japan did not bring back the 200,000–400,000 Chinese dead from the Rape of Nanking, nor those 64,752 American servicemen. Yet, it would be insane to say that the government of Japan would have taken it upon itself to halt their imperialistic conquest. There would be no “come to God moment” without the intervention of the Allies.

And yet, did the civilians of Hiroshima need to suffer for the crimes of their government?

Appeasement does not work with tyrants and oppressors—just ask Neville Chamberlain in 1938. Force is often the only recourse the oppressed have — even more so when their very existence is threatened. And this remains tragically true even if the oppressed wish for nothing more than peace — to fight no more, forever.

Until we reach a time where those powerful few are no longer at the helm of our nations, our societies, our systems of belief, and our varying cultures — the cycle of dehumanization and violence will continue.

Regardless of what the land of the Levant looks like in 100 years, its soil will be fertilized with the blood of innocents, sacrificed for the benefit of those who view them worthy of that and nothing else.

We must try to resist these urges: to paint each other with a broad brush, to mute our empathy in pursuit of vengeance, to sacrifice our humanity in search of justice, to ignore the truth when it conflicts with our emotions, to condemn the innocent to suffer for the crimes of others.

Sacrificing any part of our humanity in pursuit of justice ensures that anything gained will only be temporary, resting on foundations that will collapse upon the slightest inspection.

I’ll end with the words of a man with a similar desire for our better angels to prevail — a man who’s own words have been utilized by some in bad faith to imply resistance to oppression should be sanitized and easily digestible for the oppressor.

A man who died for stating the opposite, for preaching tolerance to those who hold none in their hearts.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral. Returning violence with violence only multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A U.S. Army Armored Personal Carrier during the Uprising at Wounded Knee, 1973

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D. R.

Agitator, banned-book list hopeful, failed-politician, suit-wearer, soul music-fanatic.