The Faces of the Enemy

This week was the first week of a new quarter and new classes. This quarter I am focusing on classes to fulfill my minor requirements for non-profit management and human rights as a nice break from urban studies before summer quarter begins. In a last minute addition to my spring schedule, I decided after much deliberation to take “theories of political violence” as a qualifying course for my human rights minor. Today was my first day in political violence and already, my mind is spinning, my spirit is stirring and my current perspectives are being transformed.

A short film called “The Faces of the Enemy” was shown on my first day of class as an introductory foundation to political violence. The Faces of the Enemy is based upon the book by Sam Keen, a social psychologist who “unmasks how individuals and nations dehumanize their enemies to justify the inhumanity of war” (The Faces of the Enemy). Keen uses archival news footage, public service announcements, editorial cartoons and personal interviews to unveil the underlying pattern in conflict between individual vs. individual and state vs. state (or country vs. country, etc…) Conflicts analyzed include WWII, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Islamic and Christian Fundamentalism and the current war on Terrorism. Although the movie was put together in 1987, its concepts and ideas are relevant to today’s national and international conflicts of war, the justification of murder and dehumanization of the “enemy.”

The Faces of the Enemy proposes the idea that before a murder is committed, before a war is started, before a single drop of blood is spilled, we “think” each other to death. Characterization and stereotyping by the news, media, cartoonists, etc… has led to a universal language of prejudice that intoxicates readers/watchers to imagine an “enemy.” Religious groups and political groups alike are justifying reasons for murder ultimately dehumanizing their “enemies.” War becomes, then, a killing and a fighting to keep people alive. “Kill one, save a thousand” is the mindset. In The Faces of the Enemy, Keen questions and suggests that this mindset and world view is not only inaccurate, but disturbingly inhumane.

The Faces of the Enemy explores the psychological root of enmity in interviews with a number of people pulling from many different sources. In one interesting interview we meet David Rice, an unemployed welder on Death Row. Rice, as influenced by far-right propaganda, has decided that communism, or the desire of, is to blame for his personal problems of unemployment, etc… After mistakenly believing that a family of four are communists, Rice murders all four people. Using a toy gun he bought at a nearby convenience store, Rice entered the family’s house and handcuffed/tied up each member of the family. After understanding that the family was expecting guests for dinner, Rice panicked and continued to gouge the victims with the sharp end of a metal close hanger in their heads. Realizing after several minutes that the people’s hearts were still beating (and believing his time was running out), Rice killed the family using a kitchen knife before turning out the lights and exiting through the back door.

Throughout Rice’s time in prison and his interview, he remains without remorse and very much so indifferent in emotion and expression to his actions. When Keen asks Rice why he doesn’t feel bad about murdering the family, Rice replies by saying that he wishes he could feel something, but he cant. He imagines that if he could feel, he would feel remorse. But that he isn’t an evil person despite his evil doing. Rice goes on to explain that a war is being fought and that if there is war happening, all people become soldiers of that war fighting for their belief. His belief is that communism is the desire of the enemy to take over the united states, and himself. In Rice’s case, the face of the enemy became the family who he thought was communist. Although he did kill them, he believed that the family was merely “collateral damage” in an empirical war against evil of which he is a soldier with the responsibility to fight.

 As the film proceeds, Keen talks with Christian Fundamentalists who talk of fighting the same war as Rice. Using the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” the Fundamentalists believe they, too, are “soldiers” in a holy or spiritual war against the evil of non-believers. Non-believers include abortionists, homosexuals, etc.. of whom the Fundamentalists believe should be killed according to the bible. The belief in the God of carnage for this group of people is the same belief that justifies the murder of their enemies or the dehumanization of their enemies. People are no longer people but are either Christian soldiers fighting for the word of God, or non-believing enemies of evil. Keen goes on to explain that over history, a majority of battles and wars were fought “in the name of God.” The Fundamentalist’s explain that God’s plan to war the enemy is the divine war they will gladly enlist in and die for.

Keen’s many discussions with war veterans, psychologists, and mythologists over the course of the film provide other perspectives of war and the humanization or dehumanization of the enemy. One Vietnam War veteran discusses how racist images and terms are used to turn human beings into monsters. Soldiers are ready and trained to kill in a fight for their country. But the line between killing and murdering is one too blurry, too cloudy to understand or define, and too objective to justify. Keen exposes why is it often much easier to not think or feel (just as David Rice has) and to think of our enemies as obstructions. The need and desire to be the hero (as portrayed in comics, movies, cartoons, etc…) makes us enemy-making animals. The hero must have a villain, an enemy, a face to their anger. And so we create an image before we ever create a weapon. We decide way before the first gun shot who our gun will be pointing at.

In the conclusion of the film, Keen poses these thoughts of which some Ill add my own to: It has become too easy for us too see ourselves as God’s righteous warriors and “them” as monsters of the evil emperors. Nobody is exempt from these thoughts. After all, survival (even at the expense of others) is a human instinct. and we have all been consciously or unconsciously influenced by the media. But why does our enemy always wear a mask? Why must we need a face to our enemy? Perhaps instead of being hypnotized by the enemy, we need to change the eyes in which we see the enemy through.

As an end to this blog but a beginning to a new stream of thought to be considered by anyone who reads this, the idea of the “enemy” can be incredibly misleading. and when we unmask the enemy and move past the face(s) of the enemy, we might be shocked at what we will find. At the end of Keen’s interview with Rice, Keen says to Rice, “I wish we would have never met. I wish we would have never had this conversation. It would have been easier for me to go on and assume you as my enemy. Because now I know that you are human too. Your feelings and your emotions are real” and despite Keen’s obvious disagreements with Rice’s actions, the “enemy,” even in this case, cannot be dehumanized. Because the reality is that the “enemy” is human. and humans breathe and have feelings and are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and sometimes “enemies.” but we can be sure “they” are just like “us.”

The Faces of the Enemy

57 minutes, 1987, closed captioned on DVD only
Middle East DVD supplement provided with institutional orders only
Producers/Directors: Bill Jersey and Jeffrey Friedman
Based on the book by Sam Keen
[Image from ‘The New World War’ by John Clark Mead]

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  • colinhedren

    Wow! This is so good.
    As Im reading there are so many faces and people that, even I, have stereotyped to behave, believe, and exist to be. Maybe some are true, some might be right, many to be wrong; all in all, as my brain slightly hurts, this propels me to think much harder before I think I know something to be true or something I believe to be true.
    Way to go babe! This blog is something to be proud of, really.

  • Tara

    Roomie this was so good and at times even chilling. I can totally see the truth behind what this guys saying. We see this in Christianity all the time. It is us versus them. All unbelievers, no matter how good a person they may be, are all deemed as “children of satan”. We all too many times fail to see them as human beings who are just as imperfect as we are and also made in the image of God. They are no longer people but they are what they represent to us. I can see this “dehumanization” going on even when we look at homeless people. It is easier for us to just seem them as “bums” who have led themselves to where they are today through their drug and alcohol addiction instead of actually looking at them as human beings who fallen under hard times and many into circumstances that they could not control. Sadly, I think that an essence of “dehumanization” exists in all of us and maybe in some sense could be necessary. If we were 100% free of dehumanization, I think we would be so overwhelmed by all the need in the world. Where would we even start? It is overwhelming even with some dehumanization in us. This is not to justify it though. We still need to look at people as people and not objects of our anger or disapproval. Jesus taught us to love one another as ourselves and this cannot be done when we mask them as our enemy.
    Great post!!! I love how you make me think 🙂

  • Oh Roomie, I so agree with you on your comments. As I was writing this blog, many thoughts ran through my mind about the christians responsibility in all this. the christian fundamentalists mentioned in the blog are the kind of christians that i often want to run away from. they are the kind that i am, admittedly, many times embarrassed of. if christians only thought the way the fundamentalists in the film do, then there is no reason i would want to be a christian. christians are supposed to be known for their philanthropy. it was jesus that said ‘let everyone know you are my disciples by your brotherly love to one another.’ and the only enemy jesus ever talked about was the devil. he even said that ‘if someone is not against you, then they are for you.’ we, as humanity, have obviously forgotten this assuming our enemy is the one we see on tv and read about in the news and laugh about in the political cartoons section. i hope that more christians, and more people think the way you do on this subject that loving one another is impossible if dehumanization exists. thanks for your comments. love and miss you all the time!