What it is: In war and conflict people have often been encouraged, by words and visual images, to think of the people of the opposing side as wicked and brutal and objects of hate. Military and political leaders have used all kinds of propaganda to keep these ideas alive. The information doesn't have to be true, and often isn't.
What it means: If people are already angry and anxious, it's quite easy to get them to believe horrifying rumours about 'the enemy'. Words and pictures can lie, and can be used to deceive (and not only in war). If images of 'the enemy' are powerful enough, they will be what people remember. They can even persist in people's minds long after war is over, breeding prejudice and discrimination. Once 'the enemy' has been demonised, it's hard to forget the jeering stereotypes. In this atmosphere of continued distrust, conflict can flare up again, and fast. People thought that the Holocaust had put an end to anti-Semitism, but they were wrong. People thought that Nazism could never reappear, but it has.
Think about it: Here are some examples of how the idea of 'the enemy' is distorted. (1) For centuries, people persecuting Jews, black people and other groups have spoken of them as 'animals' or 'subhuman'. (2) At the start of the First World War, propaganda in Belgium falsely persuaded the people that German soldiers were killing babies with their bayonets. (3) When Serbs were persecuting Albanians in Kosovo in the 1980s, a Serbian newspaper published a photograph of a Serb woman carrying a gun which, the news photographer said, was to protect herself and her children from 'Albanian terrorists' who were 'torturing, killing and raping' Kosovan Serbs. In fact the photographer gave the woman the gun to hold while he took the picture, and made up the story. But by the time the set-up was revealed the damage had been done: Albanians were 'the enemy' and had to be stopped. (4) At the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, anti-Tutsi media, including a newspaper and a radio station, called the Tutsis 'cockroaches'; and urged Hutus to 'exterminate' them as a pest. A killing squad commander told an aid worker who was trying to rescue a group of Tutsi orphans: 'These are not children. They are insects and we will crush them.'
Why do many people seem to find it so easy to accept horror stories and 'hate speech' as true? (Is it out of fear, or something else?) How can we ensure that stories - and pictures - are checked for their accuracy? And if 'the enemy' has indeed done harm, how can this be handled so that more horrors aren't stored up for the future? After the ending of the cruel apartheid regime in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up. At the Commission's public sessions, victims and aggressors were able to meet face to face and try to answer each other's questions. It was important that aggressors could see that they had harmed human beings like themselves, not 'demons' or 'animals'; and the survivors they had harmed or bereaved could see that 'the enemies' were ordinary human beings - though brutalised, damaged or misguided - despite their cruelty.