There’s something deeply wrong with our public discourse when a reviewer like Niall Ferguson can pen a piece at the New York Times Book Review that contains, almost glibly, language like this:
The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.
The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based “terror-state” in the form of a new caliphate.
I know, of course, that we’re talking about the Enemy: terrorists. But it doesn’t take a Dalai Lama to recognize that this kind of dehumanization is part of what brought us to this pass in the first place. And it only takes a historian to point out where it is likely to take us.
This is, in fact, classic eliminationist rhetoric: speech designed not merely to dehumanize and demonize other human beings, but to create the conditions for, and ultimately provide permission for, the actual elimination of those elements from society. As Kalkaino points out, Ferguson’s description of Middle Eastern terrorists is nearly indistinguishable from from Nazi prewar propaganda about the "filthy Jewish vermin."
Of course, there is an essential difference there as well: the Jews in reality posed no threat to Germany whatsoever, and so any danger they represented was concocted almost entirely in the imaginations of anti-Semites. Middle Eastern terrorists, of course, are very much a real threat, though almost certainly not the dire existential threat that the Fergusons of the world make them out to be.
But Nazi Germany hardly provided the only example of eliminationist rhetoric and its toxic effects — the American historical landscape is littered with them as well: the genocide of Native Americans, the lynching era, "sundown towns," and perhaps most tellingly in this case, the campaign against Asian immigrants and its culmination in the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
Because that whole episode began with rhetoric nearly identical to Ferguson’s, directed at the "filthy Asiatic hordes" and producing bestsellers like Lothrop Stoddard’s The Passing of the Great Race, a warning that "white culture" was about to be overwhelmed by rapidly reproducing brown hordes (sound familiar?) from Asia. It was so powerful that when war with Japan broke out, it seemed in fact only a natural step to round up those untrustworthy Asian vermin and put them in concentration camps.
And so it goes with thinkers like Ferguson today. Later in the review, it’s clear where his logic leads us:
Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law.
And of course, anyone who disagrees should be rounded up and dealt with.