Fear and dehumanization

By Justin Ellis

“…What with the general fear of a war now being prepared by all nations and the specific fear of murderous ideologies, who can deny that we live in a state of terror? We live in terror because persuasion is no longer possible…

“…To come to terms, one must understand what fear means: what it implies and what it rejects. It implies and rejects the same fact: a world where murder is legitimate, and where human life is considered trifling. This is the great political question of our times, and before dealing with other issues, one must take a position on it….” -Albert Camus

*Last week, a Federal court denied a lawyer’s appeal for Yasser Hamdi, an American citizen captured in Afghanistan. He has been imprisoned in a military brig, without access to standard legal protections.

*Jose Padilla, another citizen captured in Chicago is imprisoned in a brig in South Carolina.

*288 fighters from Afghanistan are being held indefinitely in open-air cages in Guantanamo Bay.

*2276 civilians were killed in the attacks of September 11.

*4000 civilians died from the bombing of Afghanistan.

*250,000 American soldiers are in the Persian Gulf, waiting to invade Iraq, a project which 50,000 may die attempting. No one knows how many Iraqis will also lose their lives.

The statistics are repellent. America, and much of the world, has been enveloped by fear and terror. We are locked in a ceaseless war against an invisible enemy, with our only solace being terroristic detentions, surveillance, and paranoia. The Arab world and the United States are fighting a battle of civilizations. Dialogue has broken down, if it ever existed. The sole language left is fear.

Being a pacifist, I believe that one must decide whether murder is necessary or even desirable for the accomplishment of one’s objective. Both the U.S. government and al Qaeda have decided that it is. They have both decided that the adversary is not human. To them, we are hell-bound; to us, they are monsters. I cannot accept this. Osama bin Laden has not lost his status as a human being. Neither have we.

Killing in true self-defense has not lost its defensibility. As despicable as it is, even war may sometimes be necessary. But when one kills while dehumanizing, one commits murder. The United States cannot, should not–must not–murder. Sacred human life must be protected.

Because I refuse to dehumanize an enemy, I cannot, in good conscience, describe myself as truly right, or truly wrong, or do the same for my enemy. America is not a pristine beacon of democracy and goodness. Neither is it a despicable imperialistic monolith. To salvage some poor semblance of sanity, we must admit our wrongs and fix them, while simultaneously addressing the wrongs of the Arab world. To invade Iraq without an energy conservation plan, without a humane end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without an end to capital punishment and economic inequality, would be to put ourselves above reproach. We would be accessories to a foul and bloody crime.

I also cannot refuse my enemy human rights. Hamdi should not go free. Neither should Padilla, and most likely, neither should the captives of Guantamano Bay. They deserve the right to due process. The classification of enemies as combatants is a legal fiction. Hamdi, if he took up arms against his country, is a traitor. Let us put Hamdi on trial for treason. Only then can his punishment not be our guilt nor his imprisonment our shame. Only if the terrorists are given the same legal rights as all other human beings can we even pretend that our side is moral.

Of course, the partisans of al Qaeda do not care if we have the right to due process. They only wish our deaths. However, if we deny a shared framework within which to govern our lives, we have lost ourselves. What worth is it to survive, if one lives under constant suspicion and fear of one’s own government, where the courts are a farce and representative democracy a mockery? The rights and political system of the United States must survive without encroachment.

Finally, these rights must be, if possible, extended to all peoples. The United States is not alone against the world. It must make itself into the capstone of a new internationalism in which all countries would participate in the defense of liberty. The President, when he threatened the United Nations with irrelevancy, in effect claimed that the rest of the world’s citizens were inferior. This is absurd. Remember, as was once claimed by a few spurious rebels, that all people are created equal. Remember that all those people deserve freedom, security, health, and economic opportunity. Remember that we have no other moral option. If anyone is to fight for one’s self-defense as a people, one must do it united with all civilization.

The position that I have suggested lies at an uneasy meridian. No position is entirely right, especially one of ourselves. This nightmare will not pass without much pain, much death, and much suffering. Fear will remain with us longer than we can now realize. But we can, at least, and I believe that we must, stand in defense of human life and human dignity. We have no other choice. In such a total darkness, let us hope and work for a small, flickering light.