On Analogizing People to Vermin

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Last Thursday, The Clyde Fitch Report ran an article by long-time contributor Stefanie Schappert, under her “Lipstick Conservative” column. It is central and vital to the CFR’s mission that we showcase as broad a diversity of opinion as possible: we are the nexus of arts and politics, and we value differing points of view and multiple perspectives on the issues our writers choose to address.

Schappert’s article, “Islamic Militants and the Cockroach Effect,” makes a provocative and coherent argument criticizing the U.S. military for “bad housekeeping” when it comes to definitively eradicating Islamic militants and jihadists. She advocates a more serious push by the military to kill enemies of the United States, rather than allow those enemies simply to flee to other countries, outside of the reach of American influence and power, and regroup to continue their fight.

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Vermin 2 largerFair enough.

Unfortunately, Schappert makes this argument through the use of an analogy likening the Muslim extremists to cockroaches. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that line of rhetoric is racist.

Calling the extremists “cockroaches” implies that what’s so bad about them, separate from and/or in addition to their bad acts, is that they’re fundamentally not like “us.” Those people, “over there,” they’re a sub-human race of vermin, suitable only for killing. Schappert’s explicit argument focuses on the violent, extremist behavior, but her implicit argument, because of the cockroach analogy, partakes of an unacceptable racialized xenophobia.

To her credit, Schappert scrupulously makes it clear that she’s talking about violent extremists, not just Muslims in general. She is also clear in her cockroach analogy that she’s talking about specific militant behavior and the “housekeeping” relationship between the US military and the extremists they are fighting. What I’m calling racist is the subtext of the analogy, and this particular subtext isn’t very deep below the surface.

No one calls any group of people she understands “cockroaches.” No one calls any group of people she considers fully human “cockroaches.” No one calls any group of people with whose humanity she can empathize “cockroaches.”

Why isn’t it enough for them to be terrorists or violent extremists? Or murderers? Or Existential Threats to the United States? Why does it have to go beyond that to cockroaches? It’s a cheap, racist shorthand for making sure it’s clear that those Muslims are different than “we” are; they’re scary, disgusting others. Can you believe how awful those terrorists are? And those motherfuckers aren’t even white!

In another context, if you read, for example, about how those slippery, conniving, slithering Jewish snakes in charge of the banks control the world, you don’t presume the person articulating that view thinks that Jews are great, just like you and me, salt of the earth; it’s just the Jewish bankers who are snakes.

A writer should be responsible for understanding the subtext and the history of the tropes she takes on, especially obvious and virulent ones. Schappert gets no credit for that.

Rhetoric like this needs to be called out and challenged.