In discussing recent international political events, a friend told me, “Countries are like people: they react in the same manner.” I didn’t realize the full import of her words until I reflected on the unrelenting efforts by the U.S. to make an enemy out of Iran.
There are abundant historical examples to prove that dehumanizing the enemy is an effective weapon in creating antagonism between countries as a prelude to war. Although the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are extreme cases of enemy dehumanization, a similar process is happening now in the case of Iran.
Just as the U.S. has demonized Iranian leaders, they also have described their enemies in painfully demeaning ways. Given Iran’s geopolitical importance, what is at stake now is the need to avoid a confrontation that can easily lead to a wider conflict in the region with unpredictable consequences for world peace.
Anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson wrote that dehumanization could be considered the “fifth horseman of the apocalypse” because of the damage it has caused society. They wrote, “The possible attainment of full humanness –the transformation of the species from Homo sapiens to Homo humanus– rests upon our recovery of the lost world of fellow feeling, the source of all human connection.”
The poem, “How to Create an Enemy,” by Sam Keen, an American professor of philosophy and religion, describes the process of dehumanization:
Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.
Dip into the unconsciousness well of your own
with a wide brush and
strain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.
Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every infinite heart.
Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.
Strip flesh from bone until only the
abstract skeleton of death remains.
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphosized into beast, vermin, insect.
Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares – devils,
demons, myrmidons of evil.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.
Is there, one wonders, some other way to face what seems to be an inevitable rush to widespread destruction and death? I believe there is, and with a new U.S. secretary of state untested diplomatic approaches could be applied to the current situation with Iran.
Declaring a moratorium on confrontational language from both sides, while making an effort to know each other better, is critical. We fear what we don’t know. Years ago, I met an Israeli professor living in Jerusalem who told me that, aside from his gardener, he had never met another Palestinian. How can you make peace with people you don’t really know? Personal contact and dialogue are keys to overcome this situation of mistrust. This could be followed by a series of exchanges of scientists, doctors, artists, students, and sports figures among the countries in conflict.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in November of 1977, his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and his speech before the Knesset in Jerusalem were groundbreaking events. They proved that ancestral mistrust and hatred between two peoples can be overcome if there is a genuine desire for peace. It also proved the importance of meeting face to face and working for peace as an issue of common interest.
To persist in portraying Iran as a demonic enemy will not lead to peace. This is the moment to give a humanistic and constructive proposal a try.