Dehumanisation and terrorism

The war on terror has focused many discussions on the identity of the perceived perpetrators. These debates fail to incorporate how victims of terrorism are themselves denied their voice.

Aditya Sakorkar
28 November 2012

Dehumanisation is a by-product of terrorism. The dehumanisation of the terrorists has facilitated the execution of broad counterterrorism measures in multiple contexts. However the victims of terrorism acts are also dehumanised. Their deaths are transformed into a symbolic licence crucial to inspiring and justifying these policies. Though counterterrorism policies may be enacted in the name of justice or revenge against the perceived perpetrators, there is still very little incorporation of or accountability to the voices of the victims. 

The dehumanisation of victims differs from the dehumanisation of perpetrators of terrorism. While terrorists are dehumanised through a portrayal that strips them of what Nick Haslam refers to as ‘uniquely human’ traits, the victims of terrorism receive the opposite treatment. They are often hailed as martyrs. This dehumanisation manifests itself in the form of symbolism and memories that attempt to preserve the characteristics of life. Both these forms of dehumanisation provide the mandate through which counterterrorism measures are justified and which otherwise would not have enjoyed the broad support with which they were initially received.

9/11 and the loss of ontological security

This article will focus on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks where, interestingly, both of these aspects of dehumanisation – symbolism and memories – are clearly visible. American citizens and society experienced a crisis of identity after 9/11, a loss of what Anthony Giddens’ term Ontological Security. Ontological Security is the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action. Giddens also points out that an important marker of Ontological Security is the routinisation process, or the formation of routines which are psychologically relaxing. The continuity of routines can be achieved through regular vigilance.

Giddens’ insights are key to understanding the context of the post 9/11 environment in America and the landscape necessary for the counterterrorism measures that re-established this Ontological Security. The attacks shattered the belief that the US mainland could not be assaulted. Each individual American had to make a conscious effort to come to terms with what transpired. In particular, the 9/11 attacks immediately re-introduced the spectre of war to a generation that matured during peacetime. As the following New York Times extract highlights:

College students were forced to confront with the possibility of war – for them, the Persian Gulf War is something that happened in elementary school, the Vietnam War is a chapter in a textbook, and World War II is the stuff of blockbuster movies and best sellers. But in one shattering week, college students who have never thought about the possibility of war have suddenly been forced to confront it.

This quote captures the loss of Ontological Security that gripped America after the attacks. The previous life of a college student was radically interrupted by the 9/11 attacks, forcing an immediate response to try and come to terms with it; in other words, re-establishing routines as they were before with a new addition – the prospect of participating in war.

The loss of Ontological Security also occurred at the collective level. 9/11, I would argue, was truly unique. No civilian in the US or the world could have anticipated such event. What was even stranger was that it was just 19 people who commandeered civilian aircrafts, weaponised them and hit important targets on the US mainland.

The attacks initially yielded little clarity for the perpetrators’ motivations. The Bush administration declared that the attacks were barbaric and a war on civilisation and democracy. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden also declared a jihad, specifically citing US troops in the Arabia Peninsula, US support to Israel, and sanctions imposed on Iraq. These competing interpretations and justifications created a sense of uncertainty, especially in the context of how to understand, deal with the situation at hand and prevent such occurrences in the future.

Arlene Gertner, wife of 79-year-old Army Air Forces veteran Herbert Gertner, remarked only a day after the attacks that the endless television pictures left no doubt that the country was in some ill-defined new era of warfare. ''But with an elusive enemy,'' she said. ''And that's the scary part. Where do we go from here?''

The final part of the statement could be seen as an attempt at re-establishing Ontological Security by practicing vigilance at the level of practical consciousness. In the aftermath of the attacks, a chronic fear spread that similar attacks in the US would soon follow. To guard against such attacks and preserve Ontological Security, the Bush administration invested government institutions with extensive surveillance and intelligence powers while laying the groundwork for a new breed of counterterrorism policies. While these policies were a response to the massive loss of life in the 9/11 attacks, they accompanied the simultaneous dehumanisation of those very victims.

The symbolism of Ground Zero

The term ‘ground zero’ relates to a nuclear explosion. It designates the position on the earth’s surface immediately above or below the point of detonation of a nuclear bomb. In the case of a nuclear attack, chances of survival are measured in terms of the distance from ‘ground zero’, usually conceived as a series of concentric circles. In the first circle, which is several kilometres in diameter, nothing survives: all trace of living flesh and bone is vaporised; buildings are flattened. For those outside this circle, survival is temporary.

Despite the concept’s origins mapping the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was redefined as what Barry O’Neill calls a value symbol, synonymous with the World Trade Centre complex where the Twin Towers once stood. ‘Ground zero’ stands as a nationalistic rallying cry, uniting all Americans, and perhaps those who believe that the 9/11 attacks were a challenge to civilisation, democracy, and freedom.

The invocation of such a rallying cry was used to stir a desire for revenge. This was clear on two counts – first, as David Campbell notes, before the investigation into the 9/11 attacks was anywhere close to complete, government officials in the UK and US publicly identified Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban as responsible for the hijackings and declared war on them; second, there were voices pressing for retribution through the application of force.

However, there is no unanimous voice among the victims and their families regarding vengeance. As Jenny Edkins describes, victims of the attacks get ‘reinscribed’ as heroes who sacrificed their lives. Those who died at the WTC sites became heroes; there was no attempt to stop and think whether the victims would want to be called heroes. Nor can one be sure that the victims and their kin will support such actions taken in their name. As Edkins points out, such approaches are often opposed by those who are closest to the traumatic event. Many oppose the use of force and violence when They can see only too clearly that their suffering stems from a very similar source and that this response is likely to do nothing more than visit that suffering on other people.


“But for those of us who lived through these events, the only marker we'll ever need is the tick of a clock at the 46th minute of the eighth hour of the 11th day. We will remember where we were and how we felt. We will remember the dead and what we owe them.”

The last sentence from a speech delivered by the then President George Bush highlights the significance of the tragedy that took place on 9/11. This sentence has an inspirational undertone. Though the victims of 9/11 are remembered through annual ceremonies and memorials, it is clear that America still feels a debt to the fallen.  

The Bush administration pointed out that attacks occurred because America was the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. The call to other nations was simple – if they did not choose to be with America on this one, they would be placed on side of the terrorists. Sitting on the fence was no longer a viable option; rather it was not an option at all. As Bush said in his first major address after the attacks “none of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” Forgetting what happened on 9/11 was not possible, or completely out of the question because all that was destroyed stood for what Bush refers to as ‘good.’ The result of this destruction was to be as Bush so eloquently stated “whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

Such simplistic populism was criticised by experts. When Bush said  “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them”, Maja Zehfuss described this as a crude form of ‘othering’. Similarly, Human Rights Watch issued a strong condemnation of the 9/11 attacks and stressed on the importance of making distinctions between the guilty and innocent. HRW also sounded an important warning – that people committed to justice, law, and human rights must never descend to the level of the perpetrators of such acts – the most important distinction of all.

But the Bush administration’s combative counterterrorism measures ignored this warning. Domestically, it passed the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT) after the attacks. Accordingly, law enforcement agencies received new powers to disrupt and prevent potential terror plots. However, the act turned out to be far more draconian. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out, the FBI could obtain "any tangible thing," including books, letters, diaries, library records, medical and psychiatric records etc.” under section 215 of the Act. A new bill was passed which permitted law enforcement agencies to investigate and undertake surveillance operations within the US. Under this bill, the PATRIOT Act II, the government expanded their reach to target ordinary people, protestors, community and environmental groups, religious groups and places of worship, and even immigrants.

The justification for invading Afghanistan and Iraq still remains a matter of debate, especially since people believed that peace should have been given a chance. Similarly, many victims’ family members also believed that war was not the best way forward. For instance, the wife of one soldier who lost his life in the attack on the Pentagon said, ‘if you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband.’ Similarly, other victims’ families came together to try and turn ‘grief into actions for peace.’ One of their objectives, arguably the most important one, is ‘to promote dialogue on alternatives to war, and raising public consciousness on issues of war, peace, and the underlying causes of terrorism.’

Those who died in the 9/11 attacks deserve justice. This is what Bush meant when he spoke about what ‘we owe them.’ Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that those who died in the attacks would agree with the policies and actions of the Bush administration post 9/11. Similarly, the Bush administration started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased the surveillance powers of investigative agencies, instituted indefinite detention, racial profiling, and contributed to large numbers of civilian deaths, in the name of fighting terror. These actions cannot be justified using the memory of those who died on 9/11 and attempts to this effect amount to the dehumanisation of these victims. 

The 9/11 attacks were a tragedy of epic proportions. The shock and awe of its execution resulted in a loss of Ontological Security for the citizens of America and even the world in general. However, the symbolism and memories used to justify the Bush administration’s response resulted in the dehumanisation of the victims. The surging nationalism of the post-9/11 environment laid the foundation for the counterterrorism policies enacted to re-establish security for both the country and its citizens. Nevertheless, it is essential that our understanding of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is expanded to critically assess how these measures have contributed to the dehumanisation of the victims. An event like the 9/11 attacks is bound to create an air of sadness, fear and doubt. But it needs to be understood that that the void created by the loss of lives cannot be filled by taking revenge against those who are supposedly responsible.

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