How is it that outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion has spread so far, and yet many people in the United States have still not heard the name of Ali Dawabsheh, the 18-month-old Palestinian toddler who was burned to death on July 31?
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Dawabsheh was burned alive when a group of arsonists – widely understood to be right-wing Israeli terrorists – firebombed two Palestinian homes with Molotov cocktails in Douma, a town south of Nablus city, claiming the life of baby Ali and injuring four relatives.
The terrorists spray-painted graffiti in Hebrew on the property they had torched, linking their act to the recent campaign of Israeli settler-colonial terror known as “price tag” revenge attacks (attacks against those who stand in the way of the expanding Israeli settlements).
This terrorist attack happened in the wake of the senseless decapitation and skinning of Cecil, the 14-year-old lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Cecil was hunted down by the American dentist and professional trophy hunter, Walter Palmer, in what is known as a “guaranteed kill” transaction, in which wealthy elites pay professional hunters to help them slaughter endangered species.
In our neoliberal global capitalist world, the public finds it easier to condemn subjective (individual) forms of violence that do not implicate the system in any way, shape or form.
Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists could not but note the irony in the public’s disproportionate fury over these situations: While millions of people around the world felt compelled to condemn animal cruelty and call for holding his killer accountable, the same people fell silent about Ali’s murder.
British politician George Galloway did speak out, however, writing this on his Facebook page:
There has been a great deal more coverage of the savage killing of Cecil the lion than there will be of the murder of baby Ali in Palestine. Ali was burned to death by illegal Israeli settlers on the West Bank. Nobody in power gives a damn. The laughably described “mainstream” media are silent for Baby Ali yet howling at the moon for Cecil the lion. Blood is cheap in #Palestine. The illegal settlers are paid, protected and armed by US tax dollars through the Tel Aviv regime. All share responsibility for the burning.
But is it that simple? If people in the global North presumably value animal life more than human life, we ought to ask ourselves about the causes of this shift in people’s moral compass. There are a few issues to consider here that suggest that this disproportionate response to Cecil’s slaughter is symptomatic of imperial domination and capitalist exploitation.
Neoliberal Post-Politics: Obfuscating Structural Violence
The international outcry against Cecil’s slaughter and Ali’s murder reveals an interesting discrepancy: On the one hand, the international outrage over animal cruelty and trophy hunting that was covered in the corporate media came mostly from civil society and the public. On the other, the condemnation of the right-wing Israeli terrorist attack came mostly from the local and international corridors of power.
Following the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of violence, it can be said that in our neoliberal global capitalist world, the public finds it easier to condemn subjective (individual) forms of violence that do not implicate the system in any way, shape or form. The public merely turns these heinous terrorist acts into a morality tale about mainstream neoliberal values that celebrate individual freedom, choice and responsibility. The dentist, in his case, is simply a bad apple, a morally flawed individual who made the wrong choices and acted inhumanely.
In contrast, world leaders will jump on any opportunity to condemn subjective forms of violence to obfuscate the constitutive nature of objective (systemic and structural) violence. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, for example, referred to these terrorists as “bad apples,” who are flourishing in the wrong “public atmosphere.” Moreover, when the news of Ali’s death broke out, Israeli and other world leaders, including Netanyahu and President Obama, were quick to issue their condemnations of these “vicious terrorist attacks.”
Some were unequivocal in labeling the attack “a barbaric act of terrorism” (Israeli military Spokesperson Moti Almoz), and others, such as extreme right Jewish Home party leader Naftali Benett, categorically refused to call Ali’s murder a hate crime or even a price tag attack, insisting on calling it “murder” and a “terrorist act.” Others, moreover, issued strong statements calling on the Israeli authorities to arrest and punish the perpetrators.
However, a closer look at these apologies and condemnations reveals how disingenuously cynical they are. First, they cannot simply purport to condemn terrorism committed by right-wing Israeli settlers, when the language they use still invokes a Zionist mythology of conquest and delegitimization that denies Palestinians their right to exist, national narrative and even name. For example, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated, “We will not allow Jewish terrorists to harm the lives of Palestinians across Judea and Samaria. We will fight them in every way, with every tool at our disposal.” It is odd that Ya’alon speaks of protecting Palestinian lives, moreover, when he has just rewarded these terrorists, by putting them under administrative arrest.
Second, they cannot profess opposition to this wave of terrorism in the name of law and order in the West Bank and at the same time continue to subjugate an indigenous people to a regime of colonial occupation, transfer and apartheid policies that have been the major breeding grounds for terrorism, including settler colonial violence. In fact, it has been revealed a few years back, with regards to the organization Honenu, that the Israeli state itself directly and indirectly finances these right-wing Israeli terrorist groups. Moreover, some of those Knesset member are settlers themselves, residing in illegal settlements in the West Bank in violation of international law and conventions. What’s more, some of them have even bragged in the past about murdering lots of Palestinians and Arabs.
To argue that colonial settler violence is simply endemic in the settler-colonial culture underestimates the structural nature of apartheid violence in the Israeli state and its colonial occupation of Palestine. As I have argued elsewhere, Israeli terrorism in all its forms is not an aberration in the Israeli state, but a constitutive part of the Israeli state’s system of apartheid. Within 24 hours of Ali’s murder, for example, two Palestinian youths, 17-year-old Laith Khaldi in Ramallah and 17-year-old Mohammad AlMasri in the Gaza Strip, were killed by the Israeli military. This kind of structural violence is systematically perpetrated by the Israeli state itself against the indigenous Palestinian population.
For President Obama, as MP Galloway notes, it is also important to cover up the critical role that imperial US foreign policy plays in supporting all subjective and objective forms of violence against the Palestinians. To end settler colonial violence, in short, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its apartheid policies as well as the imperial system that supports it must end.
The truth of this disproportionate over-identification with animal life over human life has also to be understood in relation to the changes in the structures of affect (feeling) and cognitive mapping (knowing) that have been occurring under the hegemony of the global capitalist system. In the case of Cecil, this is not simply a matter, as Frida Ghitis claims, of humanizing Cecil – that because Cecil had a name, many people were able to anthropomorphize him and identify with him like any other human being. Neither is crying over Cecil, as she simplistically adds, a “sign of compassion, of caring … a welcome reminder that we have not lost our humanity.”
Nowhere has this shift in affect and cognitive mapping toward animals been more evident than in the ways in which the military PR machinery and corporate representations of Military Working Dogs (MWDS) have played into the hands of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. As Nicole Shukin has shown, military PR machinery and corporate media have glorified the ability of canines to detect, detain, terrorize and fight “in the service of global policing and security.” Moreover, as Shukin explains, the military and the media have also valorized the canines’ capacity to develop feelings of love and attachment to their human handlers “as an instrument of unconditional security.”
The same shift is evident in the hasbara blogs of the Israeli military’s elite canine unit or “Oketz” (Hebrew for ‘Sting’). The imagineers of this canine unit’s hasbara blogs disseminate identical themes, but place a higher premium on the personal relationship between the war dogs and their handlers, what they refer to as a “bond between warriors.” They also make it a point to foreground the democratic and egalitarian gender nature of their organization as an equal opportunity institution. It must be noted that this securitization of animals is done at the same time that the Israeli state has criminalized not only cruelty against animals, but also neglect of their health and needs.
The Israeli army’s Oketz unit has been instrumental in policing the colonial occupation of Palestine and imposing Israel’s apartheid politics. The Israeli military’s hasbara blogs celebrate the dogs’ ability to perform a wide range of military operations, including detection, tracking, pursuit and attacking Palestinians in urban centers, refugee camps and checkpoints.
The critics of the “outrage tsunami” over Cecil’s death criticize animal rights activists and animal lovers for their lopsided compassion.
At checkpoints, in particular, female soldier handlers use these dogs in searching vehicles, an issue that was reported to add another element of psychological pressure, since the proximity of canines is considered by some to be offensive to their religious sensibilities. These war dogs have also been used by the Israeli military, moreover, to torture Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and terrorize children and youth, prompting Haaretz to title their report on these stories, “A soldier’s best friend, a Palestinian’s worst nightmare.”
Moreover, these war dogs performed key functions in Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, so-called Operation Protective Edge, last year. According to the military’s hasbara machinery, their war dogs “battled terrorists” and continued fighting even though “many of them were wounded in combat.” In that same war, it is important to note, Israeli jets bombed and shelled Gaza’s zoo, killing more than half of its population.
Shukin goes on to make the brilliant point that dogs’ capacity for attachment and love for their human handlers raises questions about animal subjectivization – that in their inadvertent militarization and securitization, these animals can be considered subjects of and to governmentality. As she notes, the military and security narrative that the corporate media circulates does not simply present these canines as K9 machines “expertly trained to follow orders.” Rather, they are seen now as “keen, self-motivated animal[s] subjectively identified with the spirit of the mission.”
The same language, interestingly enough, appears in the Israeli military’s hasbara blogs, in which these war dogs are described as “filled with motivation” and in cases of combat injuries, they “rarely reveal that there is something wrong with them.” Despite their wounds, these war dogs will not stop fighting Israel’s colonial wars. Moreover, the Israeli military glorifies their war dogs by honoring “its canines much like its soldiers” and calling those dogs killed in combat “fallen canines.”
The human-animal bond notwithstanding, what cannot be missed in the representations of these animals in the American and Israeli military discourses and national imaginaries is their ultimate commodification and reification in the military-industrial complex. In other words, they have been effectively militarized and turned into fighting machines and robots, complete with special combat gear befitting these dogs of war, in such a way that calls for rethinking these animals within, to coin a term, a “post-zoological” episteme that revisits the question and meaning of animal nature.
Lopsided Compassion: Solidarity Is Not Mutually Exclusive
MP Galloway’s criticism of the perceived disproportionate outrage of the public over Cecil’s death, compared to their apathy toward Ali’s barbaric murder, raises another important question about the interrelationship between different forms of compassion, progressive causes and solidarity today. However, the idea that animal rights and humanitarianism, or activism on behalf of Ali and activism on behalf of Cecil, are mutually exclusive should be rejected.
Writing for CNN, Frida Ghitis traces how the intense international outcry against Cecil’s unnatural death has been met by a fierce backlash. The critics of the “outrage tsunami” over Cecil’s death criticize animal rights activists and animal lovers for their lopsided compassion and distorted indignation over the death of one lion vis-à-vis the massive humanitarian tragedies that claim the lives of many people around the world today in Syria, Iraq, even in Zimbabwe itself.
For these critics, people’s willingness to mourn one lion’s death over the millions of disposable and uncountable lives – including racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, and colonized nations – reveals the depth of human beings’ lopsided compassion and deficient moral compass.
It is interesting also to note that native Zimbabwean voices have been completely absent in this debate, a concern that brings this discussion back to the problem of Eurocentric universalism and cultural imperialism. In fact, as the Zimbabwean writer Alex Magaisa states, many local Zimbabweans, including himself, friends and family, never heard about Cecil before the news broke out, let alone that Cecil was a “national symbol.”
That Cecil’s story was not a household story among the native Zimbabeans is not due to their apathy toward animals or wild life. To the contrary, as Magiasa writes, it is part of Zimbabwean culture to identify with animal totems, to preserve them and avert over-exploitation of wildlife.
This debate raises questions about the nature of solidarity campaigns that are grounded in the neoliberal politics of identity that mobilize people, as Wendy Brown argues, around discourses of resentment (Nietzsche’s ressentiment) that channel outrage around histories of injuries and suffering.
In the process, these groups manage to produce only “reverse discourses” that not only fail to subvert the neoliberal global capitalist logic of inclusion and exclusion, but also naturalize capitalism and the fundamental antagonism that should rather be the basis for linking these progressive struggles together.
The Political Economy of International Solidarity
The truth is that under neoliberal global capitalist hegemony today, these causes and struggles are not mutually exclusive but rather interconnected and international. As critics of lopsided compassion state, hunger and poverty, not Cecil’s death, constitute Zimbabwe’s most pressing and critical social problems.
In the past few months, as Magaisa notes, many Zimbabwean grassroots movements, trade unions and civil society organizations have been dealing with the ramifications of the Zimbabwean Supreme Court’s labor ruling on the increasing unemployment rates in the country. Because employers were granted the right to terminate workers’ contracts, without having to pay outstanding housing and educational allowances, 6,000 workers lost their jobs. In addition, Magaisa mentions that civil society in Zimbabwe has been fretting over the fate of the disappeared pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara, who was allegedly abducted in Harare five months ago and is nowhere to be found yet.
This process of economic globalization itself reproduces and legitimizes the trophy hunting and commodification of rare species.
Critics of the disproportionate attention to Cecil’s case over more pressing social issues, however, stop at blaming the abysmal economic conditions in Zimbabwe on the country’s corrupt politics. Magaisa, for example, explains the corruption in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and links to it to the lucrative hunting industry, which caters to local and international wealthy elites.
Nonetheless, there is no discussion of how this hunting industry came into existence in the first place, and once again, the structural and systematic nature of the global capitalist system is depoliticized, and the consequences of its neoliberal policies are displaced onto individual actors, leaving the impression that the global capitalist mode of production is invisible, inexorable and leaderless.
But the exponential growth of the lucrative hunting industry in Zimbabwe happened precisely in the context of the integration of postcolonial Zimbabwe within the neoliberal economic policies of the global financial institutions through structural adjustment schemes. This same global economic system has exacerbated the polarization of wealth in the world, making it possible for many tourists from the global North to go on safari or game trips and engage in hunting in Zimbabwe.
At the same time, however, this global capitalist economy has made it impossible for native Zimbabweans to enjoy the wildlife of their own country. Many natives cannot even afford these luxurious game trips in their own national parks and reserves. As Goodwell Nzou wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, “Few [urban Zimbabweans] have ever seen a lion, since game drives are a luxury residents of a country with an average monthly income below $150 cannot afford.”
This process of economic globalization itself reproduces and legitimizes the trophy hunting and commodification of rare species. As Wayne Pacelle notes, “The United States is the world’s largest importer of African lion parts for hunting trophies and commercial purposes.” He adds that “between 1999 and 2013, the United States imported the trophies of about 5,763 wild lions or 411 per year.” It has also spawned an ugly, darker side to this industry that many natives as well as tourist know nothing about.
Pacelle, for example, mentions the lion canned-hunting industry, where semi-tame lions and other animals are bred only to be used later for the pay-to-play hunting schemes. Pacelle clarifies that these lions are first groomed as a touristic attraction for so-called “cub-petting” experiences that allow tourists on safari trips to have an up-close-and-personal encounter with these majestic cubs and capture these moments on camera for eternity. When they have outgrown their value, Pacelle adds, these cubs are used for canned-hunting expeditions. In general, he states, tourists are clueless about the fate of these lions.
This is the same global economic system that forces Zimbabwe to sell endangered wildlife to the highest bidder. Pacelle mentions, for example, that just last month the Zimbabwean government sold 24 elephant calves (estimated at $40,000-$60,000 a calf) to China; these calves were removed from the same national park where Cecil lived, hunted down, and slaughtered. In this system, slaughtering Cecil is not an exception.
Reading the hunting industry outside the global political economy, however, is a sure recipe for producing obscene, culturally sanctioned, nativist apologies for this deplorable practice. Nzou, for example, actually makes it sound that native Zimbabweans are genuinely grateful for these white hunters for their help in managing and controlling the epidemic of wildlife in Zimbabwe. The answer to the wildlife problem, nonetheless, requires more regulated state intervention, not more wealthy globe-trotting white men on a mission to reenact their fantasies of colonial masculinity ad infinitum.
Although many natives and tourists presumably lack any knowledge about this horrible industry, it is important to reject the neoliberal values of the global capitalist system that translate individual ethical and political choices into consumerist identities and practices. The poacher-dentist’s clients, who were interviewed in corporate media, were intent on “shaming” this trophy hunter (as the Facebook page with the same name seems to indicate), and some of them made it clear that they were boycotting him. These indignant and outraged individuals simply refused to let their money be used in such inhumane forms of entertainment.
These same people, however, are not willing to extend the same courtesy to their fellow oppressed indigenous and racial minority compatriots, let alone colonized communities around the world. In the context of the daily manifestations of police brutality and militarization against indigenous communities and racial minorities, colonized communities of color have become, to use Teju Cole’s phrase, “unmournable bodies.”
As #BlackLivesMatter activists explicitly state, especially in reference to the recent tragic death of the African-American activist Sandra Bland in police custody: “It’s easier to get behind a lion than a human being – especially, apparently, a Black human being in America.” The same could be said about the precarity of indigenous and native communities in the US.
Indeed, the dentists’ patients were not able to make the same connection between their tax dollars and the precarious nature of Palestinian life under occupation. In their cognitive dissonance, they do not seem to register or act upon the common knowledge that the unconditional support the US government extends to the Israeli apartheid state in the form of military aid and political pressure, veto, and blackmail is the lubricant that keeps the wheels of Israel’s colonial occupation and apartheid regime running over Palestinian lives on a daily basis.
In the same vein, the diverse groups that have been recently targeted by right-wing Israeli terrorists, including not only Palestinians, but also religious minorities, African immigrants and asylum seekers, and LGBTQ communities, can pose a greater challenge to the Israeli apartheid state and its colonial-settler project when their struggles are linked together within the global capitalist economy. These communities occupy, to varying degrees, an equivalent position of the abject and impure Other that, in the words of the assailant in the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, has to be “purified” (that is, ethnically cleansed).
The problem here is not only that some members of these communities engage in shameless whitewashing, pinkwashing and faithwashing campaigns on behalf of the Israeli state and its settler colonial project. More importantly, as Rosemary Hennessey correctly argues in the context of queer politics in the US, these movements and the identities upon which they build their politics, are made available as commodities in the free market today. Similarly, as Bruce Dixon has recently argued in relation to #Blacklivesmatter, these movements operate as brands to “be evoked and stoked by marketers and creators when needed.”
The answer is neither more multicultural fetishes nor more cosmopolitan identities that, as Martha Nussbaum famously argued, enable people to expand their compassion and sympathies to others within expanding concentric moral circles in their homes, localities, region, and the world. Neither is it a matter of facetiously considering alternative species identities, to which the oppressed and colonized communities can appeal, as they rethink their “style choices” and don “furry suits” that will make it more likely for powerful consumers in the global North to care enough about fellow human beings in their new feral identities.
What is needed more than ever today is rethinking universal values, as Zizek says, from the perspective of those who have been excluded from them – that is, the majority of the world’s population who are kept at a distance, dispossessed and disposable, by systematic injustice and inequality. It is only then that we can start linking diverse forms of struggle within the context of the specific conditions of neoliberal global capitalism and its thriving military-industrial complex. At that point, widespread moral indignation can turn into a meaningful, radical act that can transform the nature of social relations and the coordinates of the system.
Please note: Ronit Lentil, J.Kehaulani Kauanui, and Raymond Deane helped to shape this article by offering comments on its earlier versions.