LOS ANGELES -- The language we use to describe the people we call enemies can say more about us than it does about them.
In wars, enemies inevitably get labeled in ways that attempt to diminish their humanity, that make them out to be monsters, sub-human species, vermin -- the way the Germans sought to drain the humanity out of the Jews before and during the Holocaust so they could exterminate them like so many pestilent insects because, after all, they were different, the other.
The war on terror is no different.
A few days ago here at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference, double Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez (pictured here) was talking about world affairs and showing us some of his powerful cartoons.
When he got to talking about last year's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, he described the perpetrators as "these animals." There it was again. Somehow he wanted to separate certain people -- terrible, despicable people, to be sure, but people nonetheless -- from humanity because of what they had done and the preposterous ideas they held.
When Ramirez took questions, I challenged him about that. I told him that I thought it does no one any good to use labels that seek to dehumanize others, no matter how awful they've behaved. I told him I was the last person ever to defend terrorists, given that some of them had murdered my own nephew on 9/11.
But, I said, when we use language like "animals" to describe other human beings (yes, yes, I know that all humans are technically, biologically animals, but that's not the sense in which Ramirez was using the term), it blinds us to the reality that each one of us human beings is capable of evil.
The great religions all teach us that. The Apostle Paul, for instance, tells us in Romans 3:23 that all -- all -- have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Do many of us fall into the worst of the worst kinds of behaviors, all the murdering and terrorizing and torturing that al-Qaida and ISIS and Boko Haram and on and on engage in? Of course not, though it's wise to remember that each of us is capable of such malevolence. Human history is in many ways a record of this reality.
Ramirez told me he disagreed with me about his use of "these animals" because he said he just couldn't get his head around the reality that human beings could, in fact, act the murderous way that the Paris attackers had acted.
But, of course, they really did act that way. Human beings -- not less-than-human animals -- pulled off those murders, committed the massacre in Orlando, gunned down theater goers in Colorado, blew away elementary school children -- kids, for God's sake, just kids -- in Connecticut, smashed airplanes into to skyscrapers in New York and the Pentagon on 9/11 and on and on and on all the way back to Cain's murder of Abel, however metaphorical that was.
Human beings did those things and more. If we deny that reality we have no hope of understanding the possibility of darkness in our own divided, confused, willful hearts -- hearts that the old prophet Jeremiah said were desperately wicked and beyond understanding.
Jeanne Phillips, who writes the internationally popular "Dear Abby" column, had it right when she spoke to our group Saturday evening and referred to "the basic humanity within us all." I wish Ramirez could buy that concept.
Once we decide that the brutally destructive actions committed by terrorists, murderers, torturers and the like are, in fact, the actions of sub-humans, we have compromised our own humanity because we have given ourselves permission to treat such people as if they were not children of God, too, were not created in the image of God, were not part of the broad, mysterious, marvelous, dangerous human family, no matter how deep their flaws and how heinous their crimes against humanity. It's what happens when we explain Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden by saying they were just crazy.
Taking that road is how we get terrorists in the first place, how we get murderers, sociopaths. It's the path of denial, the smooth and easy highway to more evil.
(The photo here today was taken by Lisa Smith Molinari, NSNC president.)
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THESE ISLAMIC CLERICS SHOW LEADERSHIP
Fifty major Pakistani clerics have declared in a ruling that transgender people have full marriage, funeral and inheritance rights under Islamic law. Good for them. Maybe this will encourage more American clergy to adopt a similar attitude. Maybe.