It is difficult to know how to regard the news that US special forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 did seem to diminish the power and reach of of Al-Qaeda. Perhaps al-Baghdadi's death will bring similar benefits.
However, there are reasons to worry. Al-Qaeda was already a weakened institution when bin Laden was killed. Moreover, it had begun to transform into a kind of franchising operation. In this respect, it is useful to remember that ISIS is a lineal descendant of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its initial leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged his loyalty to Bin Laden and was then killed by US forces in Iraq in 2006. The US killed successor leaders before al-Baghdadi emerged and transformed Al Qaeda in Iraq into ISIS. So maybe the killing of Bin Laden wasn't especially effective after all. And difficult as it is to imagine, maybe someone as bad as al-Baghdadi will soon emerge.
Put differently, terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS might be hydra-like, so that decapitation is futile; a new head simply emerges in place of the old one.
But actions like the killings of Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi might be even worse than futile. They might be counterproductive if they serve to elevate the targets to martyrs or inspire more people to take up arms on behalf of the terrorist organizations. Perhaps for that reason, President Trump pursued a reasonable objective in his otherwise predictably inappropriate and self-aggrandizing announcement of al-Baghdadi's death: Trump hoped that by describing supposed signs of cowardice in al-Baghdadi, he would discourage a posthumous celebration of al-Baghdadi as a hero. Trump said al-Baghdadi died "whimpering and crying and screaming all the way." He described al-Baghdadi's followers as "losers." And, Trump added, by way of intended insult, that these followers "were very frightened puppies," while al-Baghdadi himself "died like a dog."
There is a tragic irony here. Thankfully, no human US service members were killed or injured in the operation that led to al-Baghdadi's death. But there was one US casualty, whom Trump described this way: "Our K-9, as they call — I call it a dog, a beautiful dog, a talented dog — was injured . . . ."
Note the incongruity: Trump routinely likens those he wishes to insult to dogs--and did so in this very announcement--but he sometimes remembers that most people like dogs, or at least don't hate them, and so when the issue arises he pivots to praise a particular dog.
But I'm going to give Trump a break. In this regard he's not that different from nearly everyone else. The only surprising thing is that the despised animal to which Trump turns is a dog because dogs are often beloved. It looks (and is) incongruous when Trump insults our enemies by likening them to dogs and puppies, but then a few minutes later tries to show a tender side by claiming that the dog who was injured in the raid is beautiful and talented. However, nearly everyone displays the same incongruity, as when people describe themselves as animal lovers while eating animal products.
Consider the NY Times story yesterday laying out the grotesque career of al-Baghdadi. A chronicle of cruelty, one section of the story tells of the new and horrific means by which al-Baghdadi and his ISIS followers committed murder. It includes the following paragraph:
A Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a scene filmed by overhead drones. Men accused of being spies were drowned in cages, as underwater cameras captured their last tortured gasp. Others were crushed under the treads of a T-55 tank, or strung up by their feet inside a slaughterhouse and butchered like animals.That is all truly evil. And yet I cannot help noticing that the writers and editors at the Times thought there was nothing odd about the last description: people were "strung up by their feet inside a slaughterhouse and butchered like animals." The unmistakable suggestion is that while such a fate is appropriate (or at least not an occasion for moral regret or repulsion) when it meets animals, it is horrific for humans.
Let me be crystal clear: The things ISIS did (and continues to do on a smaller scale) were (and are) horrific. But they are not made more horrific by the fact that such things are also routinely done to animals. On the contrary, stringing up of and butchering animals by the billions in slaughterhouses is its own horrific atrocity.
Perhaps you think that the Times story was only being descriptive. After all, it is true as a factual matter that one means of killing animals in slaughterhouses involves hanging them upside down. But if you think the comparison to animals is purely descriptive, consider an analogy. Suppose that a terrorist organization committed murder by gassing its victims. Now imagine that a news story said the terrorists' victims were "gassed like Jews." Wouldn't that be an offensive comparison precisely because it implies that treating non-Jews like Jews is a terrible crime against the non-Jews? At the very least, wouldn't you think that someone who made that comparison was being insensitive to the victimization of Jews who were gassed by Nazis during the Holocaust?
And so too here and much more commonly, we often condemn conduct that is properly condemned by comparing it to how animals are treated, but in a way that assumes such treatment is appropriate for animals. Trump both animalizes his real and perceived enemies to insult them and has been accused by champions of human rights of violating human rights in language that implies that the treatment he and his administration mete out is appropriate for animals but not humans. I could adduce any number of examples, but one of the milder ones (because it doesn't involve slaughter) involves criticism of the Trump administration's caging of migrant children like one might cage a dog.
Let me conclude with a disclaimer that should be self-evident:
In all of the examples I've mentioned, I think the practice being condemned should be condemned. ISIS was and is horrible. Many of the policies of the Trump administration that have drawn criticism are cruel. Horrors and cruelty should be condemned and I join in condemning them. I'm merely pointing to a moral blind spot with respect to animals that both Trump and his critics display. One oughtn't exploit one unjustified prejudice to condemn atrocities or anything else. That's why I so detest PETA's efforts to exploit misogyny to raise awareness of cruelty to animals. Whatever the cause, one oughtn't exploit one form of oppression in an effort to condemn or combat another.