Cartoons that kill: the art and images of genocide

Genocide is not an event; you don’t just wake up one morning and suddenly start exterminating an entire nation. Genocide is a process; you have to work for it.

And like any process, genocide has its stages – 10 stages in all, if we are to refer to the list prepared by Dr. Gregory Stanton, founding chairman and chairman Watching genocidean organization that does exactly what its name suggests.

One of these stages is dehumanization. This is important because committing genocide is not easy; the murder of thousands of men, women and children tends to take a toll on the psyche, causing one to perhaps have to face all sorts of uncomfortable questions, to face all sorts of undesirable thoughts that insinuate themselves into even the most closed minds, like lone spies sneaking into a well-guarded fortress .

Those who pull triggers on children, those who drop bombs on schools and hospitals, are presumably the same people as those they murder. So how, you may wonder, do they sleep at night? How can they not see the blood on their hands every waking moment, like Lady Macbeth walking through the halls of Dunsinane Castle?

The answer is simple; you live with it, convincing yourself that those you kill are not actually human, or at least not as human as you are. If you do this well and repeatedly, you will effectively convince yourself that murder is not murder; it’s pest control.

Dehumanization must be a continuous process, running parallel to the actual extermination, because, as you see, you have to convince not only your own society, but also the governments and public opinion in the countries that are arming, aiding, inciting and… in some cases I am rooting for you when you go about your damned but necessary business. This becomes increasingly difficult as disemboweled children gather in the courtyards of besieged hospitals, the streets fill with body bags, and the world broadcasts the apocalypse live on smartphones.

Last week’s infamous Washington Post cartoon should be viewed in this context.

On November 6, as Israel continued its deliberate and direct attacks on civilians in Gaza in bakeries, hospitals and homes, while clearly announcing its intention to uproot Palestinians, the Washington Post published a cartoon titled “Human Shields.”

The caricature shows a man with animalistic features wearing a dark striped suit with Hamas written in bold white letters. His comically large nose protrudes from beneath sunken eyes topped with bushy eyebrows. He has several children and a typically helpless Arab woman wearing an abaya tied to his body. On his left is the Palestinian flag, and on his right is a partial image of Al-Aqsa and, of course, an oil lamp. Just in case the symbolism isn’t clear enough. The cartoon meets many criteria. In his groundbreaking study on dehumanization, scholar Nick Haslam writes that the category of dehumanization through imagery includes portraying the enemy as barbaric, criminal, and a persecutor of women and children.

The outrage was immediate and effective; after the cartoon was removed, editorial page editor David Shipley wrote in a note to readers that while he saw the cartoon only as a “caricature” of a “specific Hamas spokesman,” the outrage convinced him that he had “missed something profound and divisive.”

It’s not really David’s fault. Like many people around the world, he grew up with media and film portrayals of hook-nosed Arabs as either bumbling sheikhs, bumbling bandits, or brutal (and inept) fanatics. This is a phenomenon that was described at length by author Jack Shaheen in his book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilify a People, which was later made into a documentary.

Coming back to the cartoons, Arabs are not the only ones who are subjected to this treatment – quite the contrary. Nazi Germany was full of paintings (just google them) that depicted Jews in much the same way: their eyes were beady and their noses were hooked or bulbous, sometimes both. Everything is precisely calculated to arouse revulsion in the viewer, to separate the righteous “us” from the brutal “they”.

Take a cursory look at anti-Japanese propaganda cartoons from World War II, some drawn by none other than famous children’s author Dr. Seuss, and you’ll see the same techniques used. Anti-Irish cartoons published in Britain and the US in the late 19th century also portray Irish immigrants as beasts, and Black Americans – or Black people in general – continue to be depicted as apes or monkeys. The goal is as simple as it is insidious and effective: to associate character with appearance, and then make that appearance terrible.

The Nazis, of course, went a step further and routinely portrayed Jews as rats with (barely) human faces, running in front of the cleansing Aryan broom. Proving that classics never go out of fashion, in 2015 the Daily Mail referred to Goebbels’s textbook depicting rats rushing to Europe alongside silhouettes of Muslim immigrants wearing turbans and carrying AK-47s. The lone, visible woman was, of course, properly covered and wearing an abaya. But at least the Daily Mail didn’t portray actual migrants as rats, completely dehumanizing them.

That honor goes to none other than Michael Ramirez, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who drew the “Human Shields” cartoon for the Washington Post. In 2018, the same year that the Great March for the Return of Palestine took place – when Israeli snipers killed 266 unarmed protesters and maimed tens of thousands of others – Ramirez saw fit to draw a cartoon of a wave of rats carrying Palestinian flags and under fire , falling off a cliff, blaming Israel for his fate. Apparently this is also something “deep and divisive” that the Washington Post somehow seems to have missed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.


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