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Facing Down the Images We Have of the Enemy : The Mind Creates, Dehumanizes Foe to Justify War and Killing, Author Says

November 28, 1986|HARRIET STIX

MUIR BEACH, Calif. — "You have to use a million metaphors for 'I love you', " Sam Keen says, "but there are probably only 10 ways to say 'I hate you.' "

Sitting in his tranquil studio in West Marin, he spread out transparencies of cartoons and posters from countries around the world that picture the enemy, and checked off a few of the recurring images of hate: "You're an atheist, a barbarian, you are dirty, dumb, a rat, a rapist. And now there is a new one--you are nothing."

Keen is a contributing editor of Psychology Today and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Studies of the Person and the Western Behavioral Science Institute. In "Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination" (Harper & Row: $19.95), as in a documentary that will be shown on public television next spring, he examines the psychology of enmity. Both the book and the TV program are, he said, "about things none of us want to look at."

Politicians Erring

But look at them we must if we want to avoid war, he said. He suggested that politicians of both the left and the right are getting it wrong. Conservatives believe the enemy will be cowed once we have bigger and better weapons, while liberals feel that our enemies would love us, if only we had fewer, less lethal ones. In fact, Keen said, the answers are not so rational, and do not lie in technology but in the ways our minds work to create and dehumanize the enemy in order to justify war and killing. Our enemy becomes the enemy, an idea, not a person.

"We create our enemies in our own imagination," he said. "Once you numb yourself, you can do anything," murder a neighbor or firebomb thousands.

On the other hand, he said, "I am not trying to say that there are not any enemies." He accepts the old cliche that just because someone is paranoid doesn't mean he doesn't have real enemies, but said, "There is a real difference between enemies and monsters, and to the degree we make our enemies monsters, we cannot evaluate who our enemies are."

In World War II, he said, the Japanese thought we were so lazy and so spoiled that they "never imagined that we would retaliate for Pearl Harbor. We so demonized them that we couldn't imagine they would fight even well."

Even some anthropologists of the time thought that the Japanese had bad eyesight, and were mechanically inferior, he said, adding "People didn't believe in the Zero airplane. They said it had to be piloted by Germans."

But if we turn our enemies into something less than human, we can't know how to react to them reasonably and appropriately, he said.

'We Are All Paranoid'

Keen got interested in what he calls the archetypes of the hostile imagination when he was writing a book called "The Passionate Life." "It was about how we become loving human beings," he said, "and I began to think, 'What keeps us from becoming loving?' Every culture systematically teaches us to hate--we are all paranoid."

So he went to the public library and looked up enemies, an exercise that he described as "very naive. There was nothing about enmity," although he did find some books that dealt generally with propaganda.

So he started going through the war sections of libraries and pulling out the books, on the theory that they would be most likely to have illustrations of the way the enemy is perceived.

"Pretty soon I could trace how the Germans called the Jews rats, how we called the Japanese rats"--indeed, he discovered the image turned up over and over. "Once you do that, you know you are on to something."

Several images turned up over and over again, but "the most important one is that the enemy is an atheist," Keen said. War is seen as a fight between good and evil, and in our need to be on the side of God, we create death and destruction. The Ayatollah Khomeini calls the United States "the Great Satan" and President Reagan says the Soviet Union is an "evil empire."

"War is always just," Keen said, "because we are on the side of God, or, with the Soviets, on the side of history, which will 'bury' the West."

Less Than Human

The enemy is also portrayed as a barbarian, a rapist, a torturer, an alien, a dirty and less-than-human creature. In World War II, the Germans pictured Americans as gangsters; Asian enemies were routinely described as "yellow hordes."

The enemy is greedy; an American cartoon shows a communist snake swallowing Asia, while the Soviets picture Uncle Sam with dollar signs for eyes. Even more dehumanizing, the enemy is an animal, "a running dog of capitalism," "Nazi swine." He brings of death, his face a skull, his body a skeleton.

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