Dehumanization, 9/11, and anthropology

Dehumanization, 9/11, and anthropology

Cover of the North County Times, 9/12/01. Photo: Ryan Anderson.

There are a few different things that brought me to anthropology. One of them was 9/11. More specifically, it was how many people in the US responded to 9/11, including people I knew well. There was a moment, right after 9/11 happened and all of our TVs were full of images of loss, sadness, and fear, when it felt like things could go one way or another. Alongside all that loss were images of hope, help, understanding, and community. It felt like there was still some possibility that the US might respond to the events of 9/11 with something other than fear, hatred, and more violence.

Ground Zero, early 2002. Photo: Ryan Anderson

As we all know, that didn’t happen.

The US ended up in two wars that lasted for more than a decade. Along with those wars, xenophobia, dehumanization, and racism exploded, intensified, and permeated daily life in US society for years on end (as has happened before and continues to happen). I remember the reports of Sikh communities getting attacked, all of the paranoia in airports about people who ‘looked suspicious,’ and of course the relentless, ever-growing Islamophobia. The fear was relentless.

It was hard to comprehend just how deeply that fear actually went–and just how close it was. There’s one conversation with a friend that I’ll never forget. I’d known this person for several years, and considered them a nice, reasonable human being. We were talking about 9/11, and what the US might do next. When I asked him what he thought the US should do, he said: “I think they should just turn the whole Middle East a glass parking lot.”

He wasn’t joking, and I was speechless. Just…shocked. It made me realize how quickly and deeply fear could set in and shape people’s beliefs, words, and politics. It was such a blithe, massive dehumanization of millions and millions of people: Just nuke the entire region.

That level of fear, hatred, and dehumanization can be marshaled in so many ways. The invasion of Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, was made possible by the mass xenophobia and fear that grew from 9/11. It was a moment in which the actions of a very specific group of people were used to justify violence upon millions of others. Today, some two decades later, we’re seeing a similar process play out in another part of the world, grounded, yet again, in extreme dehumanization and fear.

That conversation I had a long time ago about 9/11 pushed me to seek something, some method, some kind of answer to what was happening to people all around me. Anthropology, as problematic as it can be, has been, for me, a vehicle for trying to confront these kinds of processes. It has been that method, that thing, that has helped me try to not only understand but also try to change, in any small way possible, the world around me. I see it, primarily, as a discipline that can and should confront dehumanization…whether that dehumanization is broad and structural or the kind of mundane version that crops up, sometimes unexpectedly, in everyday conversations with people you (think) you know.

3 Replies to “Dehumanization, 9/11, and anthropology”

  1. I’m always puzzled when folks take the rhetorics of dehumanization literally as explanations of terrible events and propose more knowledge of others as the antidote, from the intimacies of slavers and slaves in the US to the neighbors massacring neighbors across history/geographies and to this day is overwhelming evidence to the contrary and yet this never sinks in…

    1. I get this argument, dmf. I’d say that dehumanization is one way that such acts are made possible. It doesn’t explain everything, but I think it can be a big part of the picture. But it depends. Sometimes violence is detached, distant, and abstract. Like this person I’m talking about in the post–that’s a very detached, dehumanized way of thinking about millions of people. I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing, people rationalizing mistreatment or violence because ‘those people’ are somehow evil, or different, or scary, and therefore deserve it. Sometimes though violence is very close and committed with intimate knowledge. Even with intimate violence, though, I’d say that various forms of dehumanization can potentially be part of the picture. People may be neighbors, but they may think of their neighbors in racist, discriminatory, and yes dehumanizing ways. Slavery may have involved intimate contact and knowledge, but it was no less dehumanizing. Slavery is literally the dehumanization of other people…turning them into mere property that can be treated (and abused) as such. Dehumanization–calling people savages, animals, etc–has been used to justify and rationalize violence, displacement, dispossession, and so on. And while I think more knowledge of others can help (which is a very Boasian argument), I don’t think that’s some sort of panacea. I mean, that was a shortcoming of a lot of anthropology up through the end of the 20th century, which didn’t account for power, structural factors, etc when addressing issues like racism and dehumanization (see the work of Mullings 2005 and others on that point). More knowledge and empathy are a potential start, but people have to be willing to change their ideas, think about others in different ways, and make some choices. I talk about this in one of my classes when I compare the cases of Dylann Roof and Derek Black, for example. There are always choices and responsibilities. But of course, there are also bigger issues at play as well that a focus on more knowledge, or empathy, won’t be able to address. Again, that’s back to the critiques of Mullings and others from a while back.

    2. hey Ryan, thanks for yer generous reply and yes to the structuralish/political-economyish aspects and along those lines am tempted to point out that those are different/differing phenomena (using people as property, name calling, etc) and that’s true but more to the point I think there is too much being given to the idea(l) of being Human and or being recognized as fully or truly Human, do we really still want to go down that line?