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Leah McElrath Headshot

"That One": McCain's Use of Dehumanization as Hate-Speech

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When McCain uses dehumanizing phrases like "that one" to refer to Barack Obama, he is implementing long-standing military techniques for dehumanizing one's opponent during wartime. But this is NOT a war, and McCain's behavior in this context is beyond irresponsible and amounts to hate speech.

According to military wisdom, dehumanization is a necessary technique during wartime because it enables human beings to kill other human beings without hesitation in combat situations.

Think about that.

Now, think about that in the context of an election in a country where racism is still prevalent and McCain's opponent is the first black presidential nominee in our nation's history.

When McCain refuses to look at Barack Obama and refuses to use his name, he is employing modified versions of this same technique -- and versions that could be said to fall on the acceptable side of the line of strategic judgment. But when McCain tolerates expressions of "Kill him!" targeted at Barack Obama during pro-McCain political rallies, he steps over the line -- very, very far over the line.

When McCain and his surrogates, including prominently Sarah Palin, discuss Obama as someone who is allegedly friends with a "terrorist" -- they are not just utilizing the technique of dehumanization -- they are building an entire narrative based upon it. It is impossible in this culture not to be aware that "terrorist" is currently synonymous of someone deserving death or political assassination. McCain knows that, Palin knows that, and the McCain campaign strategists know that.

The reports in the media of the epithets used by McCain supporters toward Obama and of those same supporters harassment of media representatives show the degree to which the use of this kind of strategy can quickly develop a mob mentality.

McCain continuously cites his experience as a POW during the Vietnam War as a reason why he is qualified for the Presidency. No doubt techniques such as dehumanization helped McCain survive his period of captivity -- and they were appropriate in that context. However, they are NOT appropriate for use in non-combat situations -- and are particularly frightening when applied against fellow American citizens.

It is common for survivors of trauma, such as being held in captivity and tortured as McCain was as a POW, to revert in periods of stress to the use of the defenses that helped the survive the trauma. As we have all watched his behavior devolve over the past few weeks, McCain appears to be demonstrating such a reversion.

In doing so, he is using what can only be described as hate-speech to inflame emotions and to pour gasoline on the embers of racial animosity in the United States. While we all have respect for McCain's service to his country in the past, what he is doing now is unconscionable and anti-American.

Someone needs to remind John McCain that he is not in the jungle anymore.

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