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The baddies who don’t know they are

A process of dehumanisation enables the savagery unleashed during the October 7 pogrom

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘‘Hans … are we the baddies?”

The moment of self-realisation in a Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch as two Nazis in a bunker examine their uniform and realise that their symbol is a skull. “I mean,” says David Mitchell, “what do skulls make you think of? Death … cannibals … beheading … pirates… [and] fun or not, pirates are still the baddies.”

Psychological outliers apart, nobody likes to think of themselves as the baddies. And yet, many people do things that are unambiguously evil. They often do them on the orders of institutions, terrorist gangs, or states who have decided that these acts of evil will be officially sanctioned and, often, publicly acknowledged.

We have seen this most recently in the horrific actions of Hamas terrorists in southern Israel. Confirmed stories of children cut from their mother’s womb while their mother is woken up with slaps to watch the murder of her baby, of a child baked alive in an oven while his mother is forced to hear his screams, of women raped among the bodies of their friends, of families watching each other be tortured and murdered one by one. 

That Hamas supporters in the West were left arguing over exactly how many babies had been beheaded (as opposed to murdered in some other way) says something about the scale of the barbarism. If you’re explaining how many babies your chosen terrorist group did in fact behead, you’re losing.

Except, you’re probably not. Not among your own political and social group. One of the most astonishing aspects of the consequences of the October 7 pogrom is that so many people have felt willing and able to excuse, defend, or deny the atrocities committed by Hamas that day.

I’m not talking here of those supporting the rights of the Palestinian people or criticising the policies of the Netanyahu government. I mean the ones actively excusing or defending a crime against humanity.

How does this happen? How do people, who almost certainly also think they are not the baddies, end up slaughtering teenagers at a music festival? How do people half a world away defend them? 

How do people half a world away defend them?

The simple answer is dehumanisation. The victims cease to be individuals, each with their own spark and light, who love and were loved, and become instead members of a category who can be killed legitimately because of what they are: in this case, Jews. 

The dehumanisation of certain people to the extent that you can inflict unspeakable horrors upon them takes time. It involves constructing narratives which separate that category of person from the rest of humanity. We will often use words for them that separate them from the rest of humanity too, such that we start not to see them as being humans like us.

There are examples of this littered across history. The most obvious, especially in the light of the October pogrom, is the Holocaust. We see it in our own history, as the transatlantic slave trade turned Africans into subhumans in the eyes of their enslavers. 

All people can slip into this terrible mode of thought, rejoicing in the agony of a Russian soldier wounded by a Ukrainian drone or thinking that the child traumatised in Gaza has earned his pain.

Which is why it is worth asking how people, who definitely do not consider themselves “the baddies”, can see it as worthwhile debating how many babies were, in fact, beheaded. Narratives have taken hold here which categorise people by their intrinsic characteristics, that identify people as oppressors or oppressed because of their race (or other characteristics), have justified violent action against people who are part of that oppressor category, regardless of their individual human worth. 

These narratives are rife in academia and have spilled over hard into theology, especially a school of theology called Liberation Theology, and its offshoots. Christ, who refused to be a zealot, a fighter against the oppressor Romans, in his earthly ministry, is turned into a zealot for oppressed people in the contemporary world.

I fear this must be named as a heresy. Soon, with festive baubles and carols, we will be celebrating the birth of a little baby, both human and divine. In that birth we see the rejection of all attempts to define us by our race, sex, or status. “God became man that man might become God,” as Athanasius put it, which means that every single one of us has shining within us the potential of divinity which defies categorisation. 

To be human, Christ came to a particular woman, in a particular town, in a particular year, but this was a humanity-wide event, transcending his particularity and transforming ours.

The minute we stop seeing people for who they are — children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, born in the image and likeness of God — and see them instead as part of a group that deserves oppression or punishment, or just whose wellbeing can be destroyed for the good of another group, we have fallen into a dark place where one day we will look at our labels and ask, “Are we the baddies?”

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