Dehumanization

by Elsa Lilja Gunnarsdottir

When thinking about cruel things that people have done to other people – atrocities of war, genocide, terrorist attacks, school shootings, the list is long – I wonder how someone can find it in them to do that to another.

Why do people bully? Why do they kill? Why does a thing as war exist?

To me, war is comparable to brutal fights or sexual abuse; people incapable of withholding their need to use power to force themselves upon others, and in return become indifferent about hurting and even taking the lives of people.

I am sure we have all felt a sort of anger for a person where in our eyes they become a monster, or subhuman. Try to think of an example when someone has committed a horrible crime or done injustice to you, someone you care about, or to society. In discussions about terrorists or other perpetrators, for instance in regards to the recent horrific massacre that occurred here in Norway, I have often heard people exclaim, “These kinds of things make me wish my country had the death sentence,” even though the person is completely against this form of punishment as principle, or more often, when they don’t feel any relation to that person.

But this is the dangerous part: that we dehumanize our enemies. Often, when people do horrible things, we don’t see them as human beings anymore; they become monsters. It’s justified by the fact that they have committed a monstrous act, yet we may not realize that these dehumanizing thoughts might even be what lead to these acts in the first place.

I believe that the idea of someone as less than human is a dangerous factor often present in genocide. A well-known example is the genocide in Kigali, Rwanda. There had been tension between the Hutus and Tutsis for centuries, though it was as if some were just waiting for a good enough reason to begin killing. The attacks were sparked by the death of the current Hutu president, whom many believed had been carried out by Tutsis. With encouragement from radio broadcasts by Hutu extremists, Hutus went on to slaughter Tutsis and Hutus who supported them, disregarding all previous relations and justifying murder and torture by degrading them to subhumans. In a despicable state of vengeance, people killed their neighbors and even their friends, with no other reason than that they were recognized as Tutsi (or Tutsi supporters). It’s difficult to understand how someone could go on to commit merciless killings of their friends, but I believe it means they must have lost sight of them as equals, and instead thought of them as plagues to society. These are horrible and dangerous thoughts, but I believe, and I say this with great regret and cautiousness, that they can enter the minds of all of us.

I went to listen to a conference in Oslo, hosted by Habitat Norway, and present was former mayor of Kigali Aisa Kirabo Kacyira (2006-2011). She had to deal with the aftermath of the genocide and inspire people to live together peacefully after the horrible slayings in 1994. Following the genocide were many killings avenging the victims of the attacks. Would the killings ever end? It is clear that people cannot live together in peace as long as these ideas are present. Kacyira had to convince her people to leave the past behind and to forgive those who had done wrong. This was undoubtedly not an easy thing to do, but that the Hutus, Tutsis and all others can now live together as Rwandans, is proof that it is possible.

As mayor, Kacyira spoke to many families who had lost their loved ones in the genocide, many of whom asked her how on earth they were supposed to be able to forgive someone who had killed their loved ones. One specific example that lingers in my mind is that of a teacher who lost her son in the mass-killings. When asked to teach the Hutu who had murdered her Tutsi son, she came to Kacyira asking, “How can I help someone who has taken my son away from me?” Kacyira said to her “If we stop seeing our neighbors as humans, the outcome can be very dangerous, as perpetuated by the genocide.”[1] Not only did Kacyira have to encourage the Hutu’s to see their Tutsi neighbors as equals, she also had to convince the Tutsis to look at the Hutus who had been involved in the killings and see them not as murderers, but as human beings. Needless to say, this is a lot to ask of someone who as lost a loved one, but in an admirable way, many Rwandan citizens have been able to, to some extent, overcome the past.

A conclusion I derived from listening to Kacyira’s stories is that we cannot correct our past, but we can correct our future. The only way to overcome the atrocities of the past is to not repeat them. Kacyira had to convince her people that it was these thoughts, that their counterparts were not human, that led to such horrible events, and that these ideas are what need to become extinct. The ones who took part in the slayings needed to be judged in a fair trial, not to be charged with their lives in return, because that would mean the killings might have gone on infinitely. Although the process of trials is a long one, I believe that to assure human rights we need to give everyone the same, fair opportunities. And we need to learn from past mistakes, not repeat them.

The concept of dehumanization came to mind also during our field trip to the Holocaust museum. The atrocities and horrors that happened during World War II are (thankfully) incomprehensible to most of us. Many may wonder how these things could have happened, and how the Nazi party could gain power – especially considering they were, in fact, democratically elected. What this exhibit also portrays are the appeals that the Nazis used to gain support from the people of Germany. They offered all sorts of benefits to the people, but those benefits were exclusive only to the people they saw “fit” to receive them, which excluded many others; Jews, homosexuals, the physically impaired, among others. The Nazis depicted the Jews as rats, as vermin – in other words; dehumanized them. “Untermensch” was a term commonly used by Nazis which someone who is socially or racially inferior.[2] In other words, not worthy of being treated equally as those they saw fit as “worthy”.  As they were no longer perceived as humans, people no longer felt much compassion for them. Most people don’t feel guilty about killing vermin, because they see them as something that just exists in their environment as a pest, a plague whose existence is only of harm to society.

Imagine viewing a certain group of people in the same way – something that just exists in society to assure its destruction and with it harm others. When we stop seeing others as human beings, as equals, and instead see them only as vermin, it’s easy to forget about ethics in regards to how to treat them.

Dehumanization is a dangerous thing because we lose sight of what’s right and wrong. When we lose sight of humanity, there are no limits as to what can happen. There are many known examples to confirm this: The First Crusade, The Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, The Holocaust, school shootings, terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and 22nd of July, and unfortunately, many more. One may argue that there were other reasons for these attacks, but clearly the perpetrators must have seen their victims as some not worthy of life, which denies them their humanity. One could argue that this principle is true also in war. When one decides to go to war, one has most likely dehumanized the enemy and feels no remorse for taking their lives, but rather feels that it was “crucial” for them to die (I’m not claiming this to be true in every case). And with that the loss of innocent lives becomes “unfortunate but necessary.” I have heard these words many times, but it makes me just as angry every time someone utters them. I don’t think the concept of war can be truly extinct until these ideas are.

When you feel extreme anger towards someone, for instance someone who has committed a horrible crime, it’s easy to think that they deserve the worst punishment, torture – even death. But one should be aware that these thoughts can be dangerous, and such thoughts have in one way or another contributed to many horrible events in history. I cannot stress the importance of empathy enough, the ability to put yourself in the place of others, and think if you were who they are, how would things be? Even if that person committed a horrible act, it is important to try to understand how things could have gone wrong, in order to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Maybe that person committed the act because he or she felt the same anger you’re feeling? That someone else is somewhat like a monster, and therefore deserves what he or she does to them.

I don’t think anyone has the right to dehumanize someone or decide that someone is unworthy of humane treatment. For what is it that makes us human, and in turn excludes others from that concept?


[1] The discussion is derived from memory and does not render her exact words.

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