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June 29, 2009

Canadian Media Coverage of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

Drs Erin Steuter and Debprah Wills

An abridged version of a research paper presented by Profs Erin Steuter and Debprah Wills

The Canadian media’s use of animal and disease metaphors in print news, and headlines in particular, results in a dehumanizing frame that has both political and ideological force, especially when it expands to include not just specific antagonists such as the 9/11 terrorists or Saddam Hussein, but the populace of whole nations, religions, or regions.

The Canadian newspaper headlines collected in this article characterize not just terrorists and enemy soldiers but, increasingly, all Arabs or Muslims as animals, insects, and diseases. 

Eradication and annihilation thus becomes the logical conclusion to metaphors of the enemy as vermin or viruses.  These metaphors have created such a coherent mindset that the pursuit of the enemy in the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is referred to as a “hunt”, capture of the enemy as “snaring the prey” and imprisonment as “caging”. 

This context dovetails nicely with the centuries old paradigm of the civilized West verses the barbaric East, with the West having no alternative but to either convert or destroy the Easterners.

In this context, difference is not tolerated; it’s exaggerated in times of war. When the otherness of the enemy is racially motivated it leads to more brutal treatment; for example, in WWII Japanese prisoners of war were treated more harshly than German ones.

This metaphorical dehumanizing of the enemy has direct consequences in daily life, including the insidious characterization of Canadian Muslims who are suspected of terrorist activities as “Canadian-born” or “home-grown” , insinuating that Muslim-Canadians are not real Canadians.

The media is pressured to conform to a certain perspective by external forces such as monopoly ownership and the increasing power of advertisers over content.  Meanwhile, internal pressures are built into the system in such a fundamental way that they operate more subtly; for example, after 9/11, the atmosphere of fear and patriotism encouraged journalists to set aside their traditional appearance of objectivity and become icons of sentimental patriotism, broadcasting in front of large graphics of American flags and openly declaring their support for the Commander in Chief.

In this highly-charged atmosphere it’s not surprising that the media devoted little coverage to anti-war protests or civilian death tolls. Most people have a fair idea of the number of American casualties in Iraq but how many know the number of Iraqi civilian casualties?

It is through such tactics, critics argue, that contemporary media are indisputably an instrument of war, helping governments win domestic and international public opinion, a task as essential to winning modern wars as defeating the enemy on the battlefield. Although this media performance has served the establishment well, it’s a disservice to the public, the troops and the victims in Afghanistan.

One of the least visible but most ideologically-charged choices in Western media‘s coverage of the Afghan and Iraqi wars is its consistent lack of interest in nonviolent Muslim perspectives. The absence of moderate Muslim voices helps confirm the public stereotyping of all Muslims as extremists.

In his 1997 book Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Edward Said says “malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West:  What is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture, as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.”

In his 2002 book The U.S. News Media and World War III, Robert McChesney says the media’s dominant narrative portrays “a benevolent, democratic and peace-loving nation brutally attacked by insane evil terrorists who hate the United States for its freedoms.” Its chief message is the U.S. “must immediately increase its military and covert forces, locate the surviving culprits and exterminate them” in order to “root out the global terrorist cancer.”

The construction of the enemy as a dehumanized Other is much more than symbolic. Its results can be global in reach and devastating in consequence. Said said these characterizations are systemized and grouped into an organized body of thought, a repertoire of word and image so often repeated that it comes to seem like objective knowledge.

In both national and international newspapers headlines are remarkably consistent in framing the enemy as hunted animals.  The enemy characterized as repugnant animals, often lower-order animals, and as pestilence, are two consistent themes of Canadian newspaper headlines.  Examples of this include “Raid Zaps Iraqi Rat” (Toronto Sun, April 18, 2003); “Canadian soldiers mop up Taliban rat’s nest in Afghanistan” (Calgary Herald, Sep 14, 2006); “Iraqi war breeding terrorists of future” (The Windsor Star, Jun 22, 2005).

Another example of the animal-inflected language is the use of “net” as a synonym for capture.  The April 24, 2007 Toronto Star headline “Trap may net Taliban Chief” is but one of numerous examples. Other examples include “U.S. jets hit Taliban lairs in deadly hill sweep “ (The Globe and Mail, Aug 26, 2003) and “Saddam Hussein ‘caught  like a rat.’” (The Windsor Star, Dec 15, 2003).

The message is clear: there are lots of Them! They are growing in number and they are coming our way very fast! The identity of this “They” is often muddied and expansive. In headlines below, the term “breeding ground” expands to apply to an entire continent:

“M15 keeps eye on ‘thousands’ of Muslims: Britain now seen as breeding ground for extremists.” (The Ottawa Citizen, Sep 2, 2006).

“Al-Qaeda roots run deep in Africa: Terror breeding ground.” (National  Post, Nov 29, 2002).

The final metaphoric devolution in media discourse is to characterize the enemy as a disease so that the enemy is not only inhuman, but an utterly different kind of organism: the microbial, the bacterial, the viral, or the cancerous. These metaphors portray the enemy as mobile, threatening, irrevocable, and fatal, while at the same time mutating and always spreading.  This creates the fear of proliferation and encroachment as well as destruction.  The anxieties these metaphors provoke implicitly or explicitly evoke the language of eradication.

The link between the widespread dissemination of dehumanizing images of the enemy and racism, oppression and even genocide has been well established. In his 1996 book The 8 Stages of Genocide: Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton observed that the first three stages leading to genocide are classification, symbolization, and dehumanization.  Animal, prey and disease metaphors accomplish in a single rhetorical gesture all three of these stages.

Genocide is not a product but a process, according to Stanton. It may appear sudden but is actually linked to a series of distinct but progressive stages, each integral to the “genocidal process.” Classification, symbolization, and dehumanization are followed by organization, polarization, identification, extermination, and finally denial of the genocidal act.

The language and imagery through which the enemy-Other is represented in media play a key role in these stages: Once the enemy is consistently represented as less than human it becomes psychologically acceptable to engage in genocide or other atrocities. Historical precedents include Nazi propaganda films that interspersed scenes of Jewish immigration with shots of teeming rats. Jews were also compared to cross-bred dogs, insects and parasites requiring extermination.

This language of elimination did not remain merely figurative, but influenced the creation and justified use of new forms of weaponry: chemical warfare against both human and insect enemies. The comprehensive use of these weapons, which did not discriminate between civilian and soldier, was justified by propaganda emphasizing the innate danger of any person of a particular nationality, race or religious faith. For example, in the 1944 U.S. government poster “Enemies Both” a gun-toting Uncle Sam is shown clutching an oversized, fanged mosquito labelled “Malaria” in one hand and a bucktoothed Japanese soldier in the other.

Similarly, the rhetorical figuring of the Muslim enemy as animal has moved from the realm of language to the realm of experience, paving the way for the now-infamous cases of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib. There is, the authors of this article argue, a parallel worth noting between the language that informs a headline like the Edmonton Journal’s “Terror suspect kept on short leash” (Jun 25, 2007) and the crawling and leashed prisoners of Abu Ghraib whose photos, circulated like trophies by American soldiers, caused international outcry.

Analysis of public representations are therefore more than rhetorical forays into semantic abstractions, but are fundamental steps towards labelling and ultimately interrupting cycles of violence that have been mistakenly figured as inevitable and eternal. The proliferation of language that represents the subject as animals to be captured and eliminated has the effect of desensitizing us to it; such phrases come to seem like simple, natural descriptions, rather than representations that perform significant ideological work. Constantly reiterated, they take on a collective force, shaping the conceptual frameworks by which the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq is framed, responded to and understood. 

* Canadian Profs Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills are with the Department of Sociology, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. They are the authors of At War with Metaphor: Media Propaganda and Racism in the War on Terror (Lexington Books, 2008). Dr. Erin Steuter is professor of Sociology where she specializes in examining the  ideological representations of the news.  Recipient of multiple awards for her teaching and research, her research and published works have appeared in Political Communication and Persuasion, Canadian Journal of Communication, Journal of American and Comparative Cultures, and other noted academic journals. Dr. Deborah Wills is an associate professor of English at Mount Allison University.  She has received awards for her teaching and her writing; her research areas include cultural studies, critical theory and genre, and violence in contemporary literature and film.

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