The media has been overflowing with wisecracks about the absurdity of Trump’s praise for the Belgian Malinois, Conan, one of several dogs used to hunt Isis founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 26. On the one hand, Trump tweeted that the “wonderful,” “beautiful” and “talented” dog did a “GREAT JOB” and posted a photoshopped image of himself placing a medal around Conan’s neck with the caption, “AMERICAN HERO!” On November 25, he received Conan at the White House to honor him with a plaque and a medal, holding a press conference with the “brilliant” dog at his side. At the same time, Trump tweeted that Al-Baghdadi “died like a dog,” “whimpering and crying,” like other ISIS leaders who behaved like “frightened puppies” when killed. Reporters have pointed to the ridiculousness of Trump’s apparent obsession with dogs given his contamination phobias and the fact that he is the first U.S. president in one hundred and thirty years not to have one. But, as with so much of his discourse, Trump’s dog comments are no joking matter.
Trump’s tweets reflect a constellation of problems related to race and animals. Dogs have long been weaponized against peoples of color in the interests of Western empire-building, while non-whites have been cast as animals to justify subjugating and eliminating them. During the invasion and colonization of the Americas, the Spaniards used dogs to attack, kill and even eat Native Americans, sometimes still alive. By turn, Europeans cast native peoples as sub-humans who should naturally be ruled by “superior” whites. In the U.S., slaveholders trained bloodhounds to track and attack escaped enslaved people and the police have trained German Shepherds to intimidate and assault black people throughout post-bellum history, perhaps most infamously during the civil rights protests of the 1960s, while whites rationalized the dog attacks on African Americans on the grounds that they were a lesser species. Photos released from Abu Ghraib in 2004 showed soldiers setting dogs upon Muslim detainees, making them walk on all fours led by leashes, and “hog-tying” them.
Addressing the entanglement of race and animals, Afro-pessimist critic Frank B. Wilderson III observes that in the late Middle Ages, European enslavers designated themselves as Humans in antithetical relation to the Africans they kidnapped, held captive and subjected to gratuitous violence. As such, the Human is a fictitious social construct that signifies both white and non-animal. Not only is there is no scientific ground for casting Europeans as Human and non-Europeans as sub-human, but there is also no scientific basis for defining members of our species in contradistinction to other animals. In the early twentieth century, Charles Darwin observed that humans are merely one kind of animal, a category of the strata of great apes: orangutans, bonobos, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, all part of the family hominidae. But science, logic and facts are not the point. Despite Darwin, we continue to subscribe to the philosophy of the early 17th-century scientist René Descartes. In Descartes’ view, animals are objects without feelings, much less intelligence, who may be hunted, caged, mutilated and killed without remorse, and whose suffering and death do not elicit empathy or grief. One of his most famous experiments involved nailing his wife’s dog spread-eagled to a board and vivisecting her. As Descartes began cutting into her chest, she screamed and struggled to free herself. Descartes noted that her reaction to the incision was akin to the sputtering of a mal-functioning machine.
The term, “animal,” defines beings as objects to whom anything at all may be done, including the apparently entertaining spectacle of watching them struggle and cry out in their last moments of life. None of this is to exculpate Al-Baghdadi, but Trump’s glee in describing his death alongside his three young children exemplifies such contempt. In his press release on October 27, he describes Al-Baghdadi, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” Trump goes on to say that he “died in a vicious and violent way,” for “His body was mutilated by the blast, the tunnel had caved in on it in addition.” Trump calls upon anti-Muslim rhetoric to simultaneously cast Al-Baghdadi as the antithesis of the civilized West and of the Human: a “savage monster” who “died like a dog.” The expression “die like a dog” means to die brutally, with immense suffering and indignity, the implication being that is that it is acceptable, even natural, for dogs to die in this manner. Calling Al-Baghdadi a dog is, moreover, an extreme insult in Islam, wherein dogs are conventionally viewed as ritually unclean. Depicting Al-Baghdadi as a “thug who…. spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread,” Trump weaves anti-black racism into his screed, given how “thug” has evolved in contemporary discourse as code for the n-word.
If Al-Baghdadi “died like a dog,” what of the other “dog” in Trump’s narrative? Despite Trump’s mock exaltation of Conan as an “AMERICAN HERO,” her status is ultimately that of a tool whose worth is calculable in dollars. Katie Rogers emphasizes in The New York Times that a fully-trained military dog like Conan costs up to $283, 000, as much as a cutting-edge weapon, and that experts warn of a shortage of these cyborg-like canines (October 27, 2019). A photograph of Conan circulating in the media wearing a camouflage harness and night-vision camera captures her instrumentalization and calls to mind another famous dog in the history of empire-building. Helmeted and fitted with metal constraints inside a Soviet rocket, in 1957, a dog named Laika was cast into outer space on an involuntary suicide mission to determine the effects of space exploration on a living being. Terrified, her heartbeat accelerated to three times the normal rate, her breath rate quadrupled and she died of overheating soon after takeoff. Like Conan, Laika has been perversely venerated in nationalist iconography for her “service,” including a postage stamp with her image and a monument erected to her in 2008 near a military facility in Moscow. Conan and Laika are not consenting patriots fighting for the advancement of national or imperial interests. Objects of satirical homage, in the end, like Descartes’ dog, they are as killable as the other 60,000 dogs brutalized yearly in U.S. laboratories or the 670,000 abandoned “pet” dogs euthanized annually in U.S. shelters.
Expanding upon the analysis of race and animals, consider the significance of Trump’s white supremacist discourse about dogs in relation to the positionality of his African American predecessor, Barack Obama. The canine framing of Al-Baghdadi’s death recalls that of Osama bin-Laden. In 2011, another Belgian Malinois, Cairo, was utilized by Navy SEALs in a raid on bin Laden’s compound. Then president Barack Obama was a professed dog lover who commented that he wished to adopt “a mutt, like me,” though he ended up acquiring a pure-breed. Apprised of Cairo’s key role in the assassination, Obama enthusiastically requested that he be brought to the White House to meet him. He was advised to bring treats and went over to pet Cairo, but the dog remained muzzled, whereas Conan sat unmuzzled at Trump’s side as the President ventured “jokes” about siccing him on the press. In her August 2, 2011 Vanity Fair article, Juli Weiner quips that Cairo’s muzzling might reflect partisan opposition: “The dog has an outstanding record of military service, is almost certainly against cutting defense spending, and could not be trusted to keep from biting Obama? Is it just us or would this dog make a terrific Republican congressional candidate?” The optics of Obama’s encounter with Cairo suggest something more insidious. The message was not so much that Cairo was anti-Democrat as, dare I suggest, anti-black. Why else might an elite military dog, whose training cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, tear into Obama’s flesh were it not for his race? Given the birthers’ hate speech about Obama’s Muslim legacy and ISIS affiliations, the symbolic impact of the president’s discordant encounter with Cairo further collapses blackness with a series of other purportedly subhuman signifiers — Islam, criminality and terrorism — underscoring the dog’s inculcated reaction to attack him. In this tale of two presidents – one white supremacist and the other, the first African American head of state – it is critical to attend to the racial implications of their relationships to combat dogs. On the one hand, Trump celebrates the subjugation of al-Baghdadi to a status lower than that of the dog who hunted him. On the other, Obama is located as a target of domestic, anti-black terrorism or, as it were, on the potential receiving end of a bite.
Trump’s take on Al-Baghdadi’s death invites reflection on many of our expressions: “Beating a dead horse” is pointless, while beating a live one makes sense; It is absurd for a person to walk around “like a chicken with their head cut off,” but permissible to cut off a chicken’s head; “Killing two birds with one stone” and “getting one’s ducks lined up” are expeditious approaches to problem solving. “Humans” use the term “animal” ruthlessly and unscientifically to condone violence to both non-Europeans and other species, whether in a tunnel in Syria, the holding pen of a rocket or the unwitting deployment of dogs and the disproportionate induction of poor people and people of color into the armed forces. It is never acceptable for someone to “die like a dog,” or to be treated like an animal, no matter what their species.