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The New “De-Rad” Meme, or the Pathologization of Predictable and Readily Comprehensible Political Sentiments

A few days ago, PRI’s The World, ran a segment centering on the work of Canadian mother Christianne Boudreau, whose son, Damian, died while serving as an anti-government fighter in Syria’s civil war. Since that tragedy, she has thrown herself into efforts to save other youth from a similar fate, a process she refers to as de-radicalization, or De-Rad, for short.

One of the clear underlying premises of the piece, one aggressively pushed by the interviewer from The World, Carol Hills, is that the desire to fight as an Islamist rebel is a sort of moral contagion that one catches by hanging around with too many people with low levels of ethical hygiene.

The proposed answer?

To swoop in at the first signs of infection and to ply the at-risk patient with liberal doses of socio-cognitive antiseptics.

Conveniently left out this neat little schema is the possibility that the would-be foreign fighter  might have engaged in any sort of well-informed reasoning,  or that the movement they are joining might have any morally comprehensible reason for existing and choosing to do what it does.

No, the attentive liberal listener of PRI’s The World  must, it seems, accept  that when it comes to Islamic anger toward the so-called West we are clearly treading in the realm of self-evidently nihilistic madness, a bezerker reality that,  if we are not careful, will craftily insinuate itself into the lives of our children who, of course, lack any true sense of intellectual and moral agency.

This infantilizing treatment of the would-be Islamist fighters contrasts mightily  with  that accorded to the millions of  18-25 year-olds who regularly sign up for the job of  wantonly  destroying  insufficiently submissive  nations  on behalf of the US “defense” establishment,  or the  numerous young  Jewish-Americans who decide to leave their homes and fight on behalf of apartheid Israel and its ongoing program of ethnic cleansing on Palestinian lands.

I don’t remember anyone here ever talking of these young people (as occurred during Hills’ report) as being lost to the “brainwashing” of these hyper-violent and decidedly non-defensive military organizations.

Indeed, such young people regularly described in heroic tones in our public spaces, and  portrayed in the media as fully cognizant moral beings who, precisely because they possess  a clear understanding of their nations’  “core values”, engage in the very highest sort of  altruistic sacrifice on behalf of their fellow citizens.

So what gives?

What gives is this.

The pre-eminent goal of a nation’s  leadership class  in wars, and  especially in wars of imperial conquest that take place beyond borders of the country, is to train the home population to dehumanize the chosen enemy. And the key to dehumanization is the ability to invalidate any possible reasons that that same enemy might have to resist the planned destruction of their lives and their land.

During the Vietnam war, the nation’s war-making elites, still glowing from the Allied victory in World War II, became a bit lazy when it came to this all-important task of consensus  management.

Who among the American population, they reasoned, could, or would, ever question the inherent righteousness of a campaign undertaken in the name of the public good by their own wonderful cadre of be-medalled former Nazi-slayers?

Secure in the self-evident morality of their cause, they allowed reporters to freely roam around the foreign country they were savagely destroying. And to their bitter surprise, some of these writers–people like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan–began to stray from the prescribed Manichean script.

A number of colleagues in the visual media soon followed their lead,  producing  things  like the photo of  9-year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc  running nude  down a highway after being seared by US-supplied napalm,  and the report  of  on-duty  American  soldiers  getting stoned in front of a famous correspondent on a network news program.

Before they fully realized what was happening, the war-makers had lost control of the narrative.  A conflict whose continuance, like that of all wars, rode on the elites’   ability   to frame it stark black and white terms before the soldier-supplying classes at home,  had quickly turned into a mess of muddy grey.

From the point of view of the US war-making elites, Phúc and the culture from which she sprang were now dangerously, indeed, treacherously, human in the eyes of the US public.

Rightly believing their future war-making prerogatives to be threatened by this turn of events,  they took great pains to insure nothing similar  could never again take place.

From the late 1989 invasion of Panama onward, no discussion of the chosen enemy’s core humanity, and more importantly still, its past or its set of  historical grievances,  would ever be allowed to come to the attention of the vast majority of the American people.

How did the military elites pull this off?

By quickly catapulting any and all questions of enemy motivations into the realm of nihilistic, Hitlerian madness while simultaneously using their ever-increasing influence  over  the major opinion-making institutions of the country to turn up the heat on any journalist,  or any interviewee or source for that matter, who deigned go beyond this patently childish and deeply dehumanizing frame of analysis.

How successful has this culture-planning effort been?

So successful that the NPR/PRI programming matrix, which constantly and preeningly tells its listeners that it is the most urbane, sophisticated and nuanced entity  found in the media landscape, seldom, if ever, dares to challenge this intelligence-insulting paradigm.

To embrace the goals and methods of Islamist fighters—something that I obviously do not do—is one thing.  To try and understand how it came to exist, and why they attract the admiration of a number of young people around the world, is quite another.

It is clear that our government, and the ever more sycophantic media that transmits the outlines of its foreign policy to the public, do not  trust us to engage in the important job of discerning the  intellectual and moral difference between the two processes.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

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