It’s a shocking video of soldiers at a checkpoint between Israel and Palestine. But our purpose here is not to comment on the politics of the region; rather to reflect on the very revealing remarks of one of the soldiers in the last minute of the video as he likens the people on the other side of the checkpoint to “animals”:
“Animals. Animals. Like the Discovery Channel. All of Ramallah is a jungle. There are monkeys, dogs, gorillas. [laughter] The problem is that the animals are locked in, they can’t come out.
“We’re humans; they’re animals. They aren’t human; we are. That’s the difference. … Let him film, I don’t care what people think. The Chief of Staff can see it for all I care.”
In exploring, on this blog, how our relationship with other animals has become so destructive and self-destructive, we often quote the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death explains how we humans spend most of our lives in fear of our own impending death, deeply aware of our mortal, animal nature, and anxiously constructing ways of convincing ourselves that we can somehow escape it.
We reduce the other animals to the status of resources and persuade ourselves that we’re not even animals at all.
The “immortality projects” we create take many different forms, from building great legacies to imagining religions and other belief systems, including nationalistic ones like “American exceptionalism”, “God is an Englishman”, and “The Thousand-Year Reich”.
Most importantly, we’ve developed a culture through which we try to separate ourselves from all the other animals, reducing them to the status of resources and persuading ourselves that we’re not even animals at all.
(The movie The Master perfectly captures this in the words of the title character, Lancaster Dodd, who tells his audience: “Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts.”)
In their paper I Am Not an Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust and the Denial of Human Creatureliness, a group of psychologists argue that “being an animal is threatening because it reminds people of their vulnerability to death.”
. . . [Our] cultures promote norms that help people to distinguish themselves from animals, because this distinction serves the very important psychological function of providing protection from deeply rooted concerns about mortality.
In the video below, taken at an Israeli checkpoint, we see another classic way in which we humans try to externalize our animal nature onto other, supposedly inferior, people: If we can see them as animals, this can bolster our construct of ourselves as superior, exceptional, and, most important, not animals.
By oppressing other people, we see ourselves, if only in the moment, as triumphing over the part of ourselves we’ve externalized: the “animal”.
This need to externalize our animal nature onto others – whether another country, another race, another class, another people – is arguably at the heart of all our wars and strife with each other. Whether they’re the Irish, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese, the gays, the poor, or the people on the next street, “they” are always the inferior ones – the “animals”. And “we” are always the humans. And by oppressing, demeaning, enslaving and even killing them, we see ourselves, if only in the moment, as triumphing over the part of ourselves that we’ve externalized: the “animal”.
The trouble, of course, is that none of it is ever true. And so there always has to be another enemy, a new war, something or someone else to kill or oppress in yet another vain attempt to prove our superiority over the animal and the mortal.
But the enemy is never out there; the enemy that we fear is our own mortality. It’s nature. And nature always wins.
The video below is inflammatory, and it has sparked outrage and accusations on both sides of a conflict that drags on between two nations that are ultimately brothers. But the sentiments of the soldier in the last minute of the video are a classic example of what has been called the signature cry of all humanity: “I am not an animal.”
And when he says “I don’t care what people think. The Chief of Staff can see it for all I care,” he’s saying something that, in our different ways, we all spend our lives suppressing and hiding from the “chief of staff” that’s our own consciousness.