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Infestation and Eradication: the use of exterminationist rhetoric in mainstream media coverage of the US war in Afghanistan and Iraq

Halifax International Symposium on Media and Disinformation
1-4 July 2004 Dalhousie University

Mount Allison University email: esteuter@mta.ca


In media coverage of the current war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq an image of the enemy is being generated that reinforces negative stereotypes of Muslims. I document the use of animal metaphors such as rat, weasel, snake, hunt and lair in the mainstream media's discussion of post 9-11 terrorism. I argue that this language violates professional journalistic claims to neutrality, serves to dehumanize individuals and ultimately may act to justify genocide.


THE TERRIBLE ACTS of terrorist violence, both before and after the 9-11 attacks on the United States, and the consequent cycle of horrific counter-strikes, requires engaged citizens to give renewed consideration to the current state of global conflict and to participate in the public debate about just responses and solutions. Yet, in order to make sense of global dynamics that bring fear, death and destruction home to roost, we are dependent upon a plethora of information that is by nature framed in some way by the news gatherers. The presentation of information about terrorism regularly depicts an us-versus-them scenario in which religions, cultures and ethnic-groups associated in any way with terrorism, are presented as alien and fearsome. As calls for retaliatory justice increase, we see the formation of an "enemy image" being developed in public discourse that presents us with a set of profoundly negative representations that serve to legitimatize violent counter-responses and justify the expansion of this violence to innocent civilians not associated with the political, military or insurgent leaders responsible for the acts of terror. In this paper, I document the nature of the enemy image that is currently present in public discourse regarding the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. I identify the predominance of animal metaphors in mainstream media accounts of the war on terrorism and I argue that these representations are dehumanizing, that they may increase backlash against those at home and abroad, and that ultimately they may increase the possibility of genocide.

The Role of the Media

The expansion of the global communications system has made the media the primary source for information about world events for many people including policy makers and the public. Yet while the culture of contemporary journalism claims that the modern news media produces an objective, truthful and neutral account of events, social scientists identify the processes by which subjective decisions, suffused with judgments based on values, are constant and inevitable in the media world. Media scholars use the term the "manufacture of news" to communicate the constructed nature of the news business that involves a myriad of judgment calls regarding the order and placement of stories, selection of sources, use of language and tone of headlines. In addition journalists also have to contend with outside factors that affect the presentation of the news. Advertisers, powerful corporations with vested interests, governments and media owners all can act to shape the news. As a result, the mainstream for-profit news media frequently distorts the information that is presented so that instead of a well researched, balanced account of the situation that addresses multiple perspectives, and is presented using careful selection of language and terminology, we get instead a superficial, one-sided account that 'bangs the drums of war' and is something closer to propaganda than to journalism.

The media provide the lens through which most people view a conflict. Journalists' choices of images to focus on, questions to pursue, facts to report and to leave out can have a very significant effect on the conception their audience gets of a situation or a debate (Bell, et al., 1993: _1). Thus we can see that the news should not be seen as simply a series of facts or a mirror of external reality. Rather it is a cultural product and the accounts and descriptions of the world it gives are produced from within specific interpretive frameworks. A media frame tells the viewer what kind of conflict he or she is observing, which sources of information are relevant, what questions to ask, and how to interpret the answers.

Terrorism is generally framed in politics and the media as the very gravest threat to our society, a "cancer" pitting the forces of barbarism against the forces of civilization. Terrorists are portrayed as psychopaths and fanatics whose behaviour defies political understanding and who are merely the product of irrational forces within or evil forces without. Yet, while terrorism is abhorrent and should not be condoned, to portray terrorism in this way in no way illuminates the meaning of terrorism or fosters solutions to it.

Through the way the media frame terrorist news, through the selection of some facts out of a multitude of potentially relevant facts, through the associations that lie between the terrorist act and the social context, the media can have a profound influence that can create public hysteria and witch hunts -- reactions that serve political interests -- not only those of the terrorists. Edward S. Herman (1986:13) noted that in the 17th century Daniel Dafoe reported that "there were a hundred thousand stout country fellows...ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse" and that in our day, there are millions of stout hearted fellows ready to fight to the death against terrorism without knowing whether terrorism is a man or a horse.

Dominant cultural and religious world views of society are critical in shaping the way journalists make sense of ongoing events. Media coverage of the events of September 11 and the consequent war on terrorism are shaped by frames that have been in place to cover such issues as violence, terrorism and Islam. Karim H. Karim argues that there has emerged over the last three decades a set of journalistic narratives on "Muslim terrorism", that reinforces negative stereotypes of murderous Muslims and presents inaccurate information about Islam (Karim, 2002: 1011-116).

Enemy image

An enemy image refers to a set of beliefs that an individual or group is convinced are valid. When these individual images are shared within a group, they become stereotyped. A stereotyped image is a group belief about another individual, group, or state that includes descriptive, affective, and normative components. Stereotyped enemy images, generally simple in structure, set the political context in which action takes place and decisions are made. Stereotyping of this type is becoming such a concern that even members of the academic establishment such as Janice Gross Stein note that enemy images tend to become self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing once stereotyped images are in place, because they are extraordinarily difficult to change and that people tend to actively seek and interpret information that confirms the negative image.

Because enemy images contain an emotional dimension of strong dislike, there is a strong desire to maintain the existing image and little incentive to seek new information about a foe. Stereotyped images also generate behaviour that is hostile and confrontational, increasing the likelihood that an adversary will respond with hostile action. A cycle of reciprocal behaviour then reinforces adversary images by providing allegedly confirming evidence of hostile intentions. (Janice Gross Stein, 1996: 98).

Historical analysis of the enemy image reveals that the perceptions of the enemy very often tend to mirror each other -- that is, each side attributes the same virtues to itself and the same vices to the enemy. In each case, "we" are trustworthy, peace-loving, honourable, and humanitarian; "they" are treacherous, warlike, and cruel. Jerome D. Frank and Andrei Y. Melville note that in 1942, when Germany and Japan were enemies of the United States, the first five adjectives used by Americans in public opinion surveys to describe the enemies included warlike, treacherous, and cruel. None of these words appeared among the first five describing the Soviets, who at that time were allies of the United States. In 1966, when the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, among the first five adjectives describing the Soviets were warlike and treacherous. These adjectives also were applied to the Chinese, but had disappeared from the lists of adjectives applied to the Germans and Japanese, who by then were allies of the United States (cited in Frank and Melville, 1988:_8).

The image of the enemy is not only very dangerous for the stability and security of international relations but leads to highly negative consequences for the domestic life of countries. Frank and Melville note that this happens because:

the hysteria about the outer threat is often used as justification for secrecy and suspicion, covert actions, policies creating "mobilized" societies, artificial national unity, "witch hunts," and policies suppressing dissent, all ignoring domestic problems and distracting attention from them. By projecting the blame for these on the enemy, each side protects its own self-esteem from the realization that it has been unable to solve its own problems (Frank and Melville, 1988:_21).


While the formation of enemy images is very common, it is a dangerous process that becomes especially so when it reaches the level of dehumanization. Dehumanization is the process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of humane treatment or what are generally accepted as fundamental human rights. Once the enemy is considered to be less than human, it becomes psychologically acceptable to engage in genocide or other atrocities such as those that occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia (Conflict Research Consortium, 2003:_4).

As the mutual formation of the image of the enemy develops, the adversary is progressively dehumanized. Members of hostile groups see each other as bestial and subhuman on the one hand, and diabolically clever on the other. In either case, this perception seriously weakens inhibitions humans may possess against attacking fellow humans. Destroying vermin or devils becomes a praiseworthy, even holy activity. All this can progress to the point where the enemy is perceived as literally demonic. If the enemy is viewed as the incarnation of evil, then whatever it perceives to be in its interest must by definition be disadvantageous to us (Frank and Melville, 1988:_15).

The most common animal metaphors applied to our opponents are those associated with any kind of vermin such as rats, snakes or insects. The techniques for deploying symbolism include simile, metaphor, extended metaphor or motif, and theme or premise
Animal symbols have historically been a central component of the formation of enemy images whereby opponents are visually portrayed in cartoon images or described in terms of animal behaviour. The most common animal metaphors applied to our opponents are those associated with any kind of vermin such as rats, snakes or insects. The techniques for deploying symbolism include simile, metaphor, extended metaphor or motif, and theme or premise.

Symbols and metaphors extend into the realm of everyday language and figures of speech. They also permeate images from the world of advertising, as well as political slogans and emblems, the parables of our religions, the icons and writing of foreign and prehistoric cultures, legal customs and artworks, poetry and historical figures -- wherever a 'signifier' communicates anything beyond its own superficial exterior (Davidson, 2003: _3).

Animal symbols are seen as a kind of shorthand that conjures up complex emotional and intellectual associations with a single word, phrase or image. Within the field of symbol analysis, animal metaphors are among the most primal symbols such as images of darkness and light, which are meant to touch a reader at the most primitive level (Davidson, 2003: _6).


Since 2001, I observed a pattern of dehumanizing animal metaphors in the media coverage on the war on terrorism. The reporters referred to the 9-11 terrorists, combatants in Afghanistan, and later to the Iraqi soldiers using animalistic language such as 'hunting for Osama Bin Laden,' 'Inside the terrorists lair,' and 'the rats are in the trap.'

I undertook an examination of these metaphors using the Lexis Nexis media database that contains thousands of worldwide print publications. The search involved looking for animal metaphors in conjunction with news coverage of the war on terrorism. Although these metaphors are prevalent in public discourse, I limited my data to clearly journalistic news articles as opposed to op/ed pieces, commentaries, or letters to the editor, because I was interested in the prevalence of the enemy image in ostensibly "objective" news accounts.

While the animal metaphors discovered in my research were prevalent throughout the newspaper coverage, the results presented here are limited to newspaper headlines. Headlines are the most-read part of a paper and many people read or scan nearly all the headlines in a newspaper. The headline which is meant to summarize the content of the news article can also present bias and prejudices.

Politicians frequently included the terms in the rhetoric of their public pronouncements
The use of animal metaphors on the subject of the war on terrorism was evident in a multitude of publications. Politicians frequently included the terms in the rhetoric of their public pronouncements, and letters to the editor continued this use in public discourse. Mainstream media publications universally referred to the "hunt" for weapons and/or terrorists but the use of specific animal metaphors tended to be a feature of more sensational news publications. The New York Post which is infamous for its eye catching and dramatic headlines (See Ya Later Al Qaeda -December 17, 2001, p. 1, Al Quaeda Gets Al Qlobbered -- December 13, 2001, p.7, Hey Saddam -- We're Coming to Get You - August 30, 2002, p.2) was the most frequent user of the animal metaphors in my research but other better respected newspapers also used the terms at various times.


My results revealed clear evidence of the use of terms that implied the pursuit and capture of an animal such as hunt, trap, nest, and lair. I found hundreds of references to "the hunt for terrorists," and "UN weapons hunt in Iraq". Some sample headlines from my research include:

* Hunt and Kill: US Plans Quick Strike on Saddam (New York Post, Feb. 24, 2003, p1)

* Bin Laden is Trapped (New York Post, December 14, 2001 p3)

* Massachusetts Eyed as Key Nest for Osama's Thugs (Boston Herald, Sep. 16, 2001, p4)

* Bunker Busts Ace in Hole: Powerful Bombs Could Penetrate 30 Metres to Target Terrorists in Underground Lairs (Globe and Mail, October 12, 2001 pA4)

* In the Lair of the Terrorist (National Post, Sep.13, 2001, pA8)

The most common animal metaphors in the media were rats and snakes
The use of animal-oriented language in newspaper headlines such as the "hunt" for weapons in place of a less ideologically loaded term such as the "search" for weapons, sets the stage for the representation of the protagonists in the news account to be identified as less than human; as animals to be captured and disposed of. This sense is reinforced when the media portray terrorists as hiding in animal habitats such as "lairs" or "nests" instead of human constructed hide-outs, bunkers or training camps. The most common animal metaphors in the media were rats and snakes.


Rats are seen in multiple cultures as synonymous with destruction and disease and as carriers of plague. The symbol of the rat is also associated with untrustworthiness in the sense of being sneaky or an informer (de Vries, 1974: 38). A dictionary of symbolism lists the common Eastern and Western cultural associations of the rat as:

unclean, rummages in the bowels of the earth, has distinctly phallic and anal connotations and is associated with notions of wealth and money. Often associated with images of avarice and greed and of sinister and shady activities (Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 1994:788).

I found many examples of the rat metaphor in news articles Some sample headlines are:

* The Rats are in the Trap (New York Post, November 23, 2001, p1)

* Raid Zaps Iraqi Rat: US Captures Hussein's Half Brother ( Toronto Sun, April 18, 2003, p2)

* GIs Hunting King Rats in Tunnel Mazes (NY Daily News, April 11, 2003 p8)

* Troops Grab 50 in Raid on Afghan Rat's Nest (New York Post, May 25, 2002, p12)

* Our Spies Close in on Evil Rat Holes (New York Post, November 30, 2001. p 2)

The media's labelling of suspected terrorists, enemy soldiers, and relatives of military and political leaders as rats calls upon the common culture associations of these animals as untrustworthy, disease bearing, and as vermin whose capture and extermination becomes justified.


The second significant animal metaphor was the snake with specific reference to the viper. In western culture, the serpent is most commonly used as a symbol of evil and the evil spirit.

Although the snake is a positive image of healer and medicine in many other cultures, the serpent finds a place in modern ecclesiastical design as the traditional Christian typification of the forces of evil. It is shown in opposition to, and vanquished by, the forces of good in the sense of Christianity triumphing over the forces of evil (Whittick, 1971: 313).

the snakes' malignant role is most strikingly depicted in conjunction with the eagle, the latter representing lightness or good overcoming darkness or evil
Interestingly enough, the snakes' malignant role is most strikingly depicted in conjunction with the eagle, the latter representing lightness or good overcoming darkness or evil. This image was employed in Homer's Iliad in which an eagle carrying in its talons a bleeding snake, appeared before the Greek heroes and was seen as an omen of their success over the Trojans (Rowland, 1973:143).

Vipers also have an interesting symbolic history in that, young vipers gnawing through the belly of their mother, symbolized children plotting against their parents. In the sixteenth century the viper signified "a common woman or harlot lying in the way, to sting men with the contagion of her wantonness and lust"(Rowland, 1973:158).

Sample headlines from my research include:

* Brave Brit Raid Smashes Vipers' Nest (New York Post, December 2, 2001, p.8)

* US Report Calls for War on 'Principle Nest of Terrorist Vipers' (Financial Express, May 18, 2002, p12)

* Port City of 14m Harbours Viper's Nest of Terrorism (London Daily Telegraph, June 15, 2002, p16)

* The Viper Awaits (London Sunday Times, March 23, 2003, p20)

The imagery of the snake, and specifically the viper, communicates a sense that our opponents have an instinctive drive to strike and poison us. When confronted with an aroused and lethal snake, responding with a deadly counter attack becomes the most valid and rational response.


The final animal metaphor term to be examined is the weasel. Weasel has been the symbol used in the North American media to label the opponents of the Bush administration's war on Iraq. In symbolic analysis, although the weasel was credited with the ability to kill basilisks and possessed the knowledge of the herb of life, it has had an unsavoury reputation in almost every country since early times.

"It was the symbol of a young woman, usually a bad one, and was basically associated with trickery.... A weasel may become a beautiful girl in order to marry, but at the wedding feast she reverts to her animal nature and pursues a mouse. ..Even in modern folklore the sight of a weasel foretells misfortune, although disaster can sometimes be averted by throwing stones or making the sign of the cross..." (Rowland, 1973:159).

Sample headlines from my research include:

* It's Showdown Time at UN as Powell Takes on the Euro-weasels (New York Post, Feb.14, 2003, p1)

* Axis of Weasel: Germany and France Wimp out on Iraq (New York Post, Jan 24, 2003, p1)

The use of the term weasel by American politicians and the media to label the leaders of western countries who opposed the war on terrorism communicates a sense that they have backed-out or "weaseled out" of their foreign policy obligations to their usual allies. The US presents itself as betrayed by those they thought they could count and the classical cultural connotations of the weasel is used to imply a lack of integrity on the part of these leaders and the populace that they presumably democratically represent.

Historical precedents

The US news media has a long history of using animal metaphors to represent minority groups inside its own country and abroad.

Historically, Natives and African Americans were portrayed as more akin to animals than human beings, thus helping to justify their enslavement and legal status as chattel.

During World War II the Japanese were reduced to bestial, subhuman levels by the media, military, and American public. The Japanese were often described as rats, snakes and cockroaches and confined to internment camps that often were actual stables. A popular poster in American West Coast restaurants during World War II proclaimed "This restaurant poisons rats and Japs." The Nation ran a story in 1945 describing a Japanese soldiers death on Iwo Jima as "a rat's death, defiant in a corner until all else fails" (Dower, 1986: 91).

In Vietnam, the massacre by American soldiers of as many as 500 unarmed civilians - old men, women, children - in My Lai and neighboring villages in central Vietnam on March 16, 1968 was justified by their commander Lt. William Calley as the equivalent of killing animals ( Linder, 2003:_4).

Racist epithets such as cockroaches, sand niggers, camel jockeys and other dehumanizing terms were used to describe the Iraqis during the first Gulf War, while their slaughter was described in hunting terms as "a turkey shoot, shooting fish in a barrel or clubbing seals" (Kellner, 1992: 247).

Pilots flying over groups of Iraqi troops reported that they "'ran like ants' when the bombs were dropped on them" and "It's like someone turned on the kitchen light late at night, and the cockroaches started scurrying. We finally got them out where we can find them and kill them" (Kellner, 1992: 246).

The demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis heated up racist passions that exploded into violence against Arab Americans
The mainstream media contributed to the dehumanization process through its use of euphemisms and military language, its demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi 'enemy', and its serving as an instrument of US government propaganda (Kellner, 1992: 246). Kellner argues that in the first Gulf War, the demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis heated up racist passions that exploded into violence against Arab Americans.

Racism and dehumanizing national peoples or ethnic groups promotes violence at home and abroad. Dehumanizing individuals or groups makes them legitimate targets for violence and thus encourages and justifies social violence. One of the pernicious effects of war is that it accelerates racial violence. In order to kill members of another country or race, one must perceive them to be worthy of death and thus there is a tendency to perceive one's enemies as less than human (Kellner, 1992: 249).

The dominant metaphor for immigrants in the Los Angeles Times was animals
"In a more recent analysis of metaphorical language in the Los Angeles Times coverage of Latinos, Otto Santa Ana noted that the dominant metaphor for immigrants was animals, including references to the immigrants being "hunted out", baited, lured and ferreted out. In all, the theme - which the author characterizes as "overtly racist and dehumanizing" - surfaced in nearly one third of all allusions to immigrants from 1992-1994" (Santa Ana, 2002: 6).

Consequences of dehumanization

Dehumanizing individuals or groups can make them legitimate targets for violence and doesn't support attempts at negotiated solutions. If we see our opponents as less than human and akin to vermin or parasites, it become ludicrous to imagine sitting down and talking to them at the negotiating table or trying them for war crimes at an international court of human rights. The language of dehumanization can also serve to legitimize the practice of oppression and even genocide.

A disturbing column by Anne Coulter which appeared in the National Review shortly after 9-11, recommends a horrifying counter attack:

"This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack.... We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.' (Coulter, 2001: _10).

The Nazis created propaganda films that interspersed scenes of Jewish immigration with shots of teaming rats ... to endorse an exterminationist rhetoric
Exterminationist rhetoric has been used by many groups in times of ethnic conflict. The Nazis created propaganda films that interspersed scenes of Jewish immigration with shots of teaming rats. Jews were compared to cross-bred mongrel dogs, insects and parasites and statements such as "in the case of Jews and lice, only a radical cure helps" (cited in Mieder, 1982:425-464) were used to endorse an exterminationist rhetoric.

This language was also evident in my research:

* A Broad Effort to Eradicate Terror (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 30, 2001, pA17).

* Live with terrorism or go all-out to eradicate it (Portland Maine Press Herald, Sept. 16, 2001, pC4)

* Israeli Defence Minister Vows to Pursue, 'Exterminate' Enemies' ( BBC, Nov. 17, 2002)

I would argue that when the media and the public frame their discourse on terrorism in terms of dealing with animals instead of people, they are producing and sustaining racist attitudes towards individuals and ethnic groups. Edward Said notes that a central element of a racist orientation is to rely on stereotypes to define people by their natures instead of their actions.

Much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression coming from Islam because that is what "Islam" is. Local and concrete circumstances are thus obliterated. In other words, covering Islam is a one-sided activity that obscures what 'we' do and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs, by their flawed nature are" (Said, 1997:xxii).

Thus it is important not to be complacent about language of this type in any public discourse especially the news media. Representing other people as vermin, even if those people are enemy combatants or known terrorists who have committed terrible atrocities, is a profoundly dehumanizing act that undermines the fragile construction of a civilized society. Recent events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda reveal how much effort is needed to sustain a humane society and how easily it can be shattered.


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Exterminationism & Eradication

Editor's note

Prof Erin Steuter writes: "The Nazis created propaganda films that interspersed scenes of Jewish immigration with shots of teaming rats ... to endorse an exterminationist rhetoric." In 1945 the Nuremburg Tribunal convicted Nazi propagandist and Gauleiter Julius Streicher, editor of Der Sturner, for incitement to murder and extermination, constituting persecution on political and racial grounds in connection with war crimes, as defined by the UN Charter, and constituting a crime against humanity. The work of Streicher is on same line of everything else published and issued by contemporary media cited by Prof Steuter in her study.

These montages illustrate the form and caricatures
which Streicher's publications developed and the remarkable lengths to which he went, especially the instruction and perversion of the children and youth of Germany to, in his words, "crush the head of the serpent Pan-Juda beneath their heels."

Der Sturmer even published children's books, including one entitled "Don't trust the Fox in the green meadow nor the Jew on his oath." It is a picture book for children. The pictures all depict Jews in an offensive light. And opposite each picture is a story.

Another book, called The Poisoned Fungus (or "The Poisonous Toadstool", Der Giftpilz), is similar in character and appearance, and likewise calculated to poison the minds of readers. (Page from the anti-Semitic German children's book, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Toadstool). The text of this page reads, 'He who fights against Jews, wrestles with the devil.' Today, the target has changed but neither the fascist aim, metaphors or method, constituting a crime against humanity.

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