Of rats and men 

LAST MONTH IN the New Statesman (9 June, 2003), Theodore Dalrymple drew attention to a campaign currently being run against drug-dealers. He recounted how, every day during his work as a prison doctor, he found himself passing two posters ‘with a picture of a horrible large rat standing on its hind legs, looking at the world with feral malignity.’ The poster in question bears an invitation to ‘Rat on a rat’ by informing on a drug dealer. It gives a telephone number to which anonymous denunciations can be made.  

In commenting on this poster Dalrymple wrote as follows: ‘I have little sympathy for drug dealers, but this deliberately dehumanising depiction of them (or anyone) appals me.’ 

In his lack of sympathy with drug-dealers, Dalrymple will not be alone. But he is surely right when he takes exception to the ‘Rat on a rat’ campaign and when he registers his appalled dismay at the deliberate dehumanisation which is being enacted in the poster he describes. 

Similar questions also arise in other contexts. This was made painfully clear in a recent BBC Radio 4 item on Al Quaeda and Taleban suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. As has already been reported, such suspects are held without trial in wire cages. They are clothed in orange overalls and kept day and night beneath harsh, bright lights. Sometimes they are manacled and clamped into leg irons on trolleys to be wheeled to interrogation huts.  

After describing the conditions in which detainees were kept, the BBC’s John Mantel went on to note that in the Navy Exchange shop, which is sited within the prison complex, it is possible to buy souvenirs. One of these is a T-shirt. Beneath the words Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: Home of the sand rat, it shows six sweating rats, dressed in orange overalls, shackled together in a single cage above the caption Al Quaeda six-pack

Given these two examples, it is perhaps time to consider such imagery in more detail. In commenting on the ‘rat on a rat’ poster Dalrymple wrote this: ‘It is hardly an original observation that a first step to inhuman treatment is often the use of animal metaphors to describe those of whom we disapprove’. This doesn’t quite capture the force of the image which is in question, however. For the comparison to a rat almost inevitably evokes repugnance and plays on fears of pollution and disease.

Rats are not simply animals, they are they frequently imagined as the incarnation of all uncleanness. They are also ‘vermin’ whose destruction most people would favour, and against whose designation as ‘pests’ even the most dedicated animal rights campaigners do not generally protest..

It ought not to be necessary to point out that the political party who perhaps had the greatest recourse to such imagery in modern history was the National Socialist Party in Germany.  

Again and again, as well as portraying Jewish people as unclean and microscopically small organisms, National Socialist propagandists portrayed them as small unclean animals or insects. A party manual called upon all good Aryans to squash Jews and members of other ‘inferior races’ like ‘roaches on a dirty wall.’  Goebbels wrote: ‘It is true that the Jew is a human being, but so is a flea a living being - one that is none too pleasant . . . our duty towards both ourselves and our conscience is to render it harmless. It is the same with the Jews.’ 

The film Der Ewige Jude, which formed part of a propaganda programme designed to justify to the German people the deportations of Jews which were already taking place, included a powerful montage sequence in which Jews were compared to rats. In the words of the commentary, ‘rats … have followed men like parasites from the very beginning … They are cunning, cowardly and fierce, and usually appear in large packs. In the animal world they represent the element of subterranean destruction.’  Having noted that rats spread disease and destruction, the commentary suggested that they occupied a position ‘not dissimilar to the place that Jews have among men’. At this point in the film, footage of rats squirming through sewers is followed first by the image of  a rat crawling up through a drain-cover into the street and then by shots of Jewish people crowded together in ghettos.   

In the Security Service report on the film, the comparison of the Jewish people to rats was held to be ‘particularly impressive’. 

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically anti-semitic (or racist) about the image of the rat. However, presenting images of Jews as unclean insects or rodents was perhaps the most effective way not only of arousing and confirming anti-semitic hatred but of directly inciting physical violence by stirring some of people’s deepest fears and anxieties.  The same idea was used in ‘instant’ propaganda exercises to prepare for mass murder. According to one account, peasants recruited by the Germans in occupied countries in order to help in mass murders were given an intensive training course which lasted only a few hours, and which consisted in the study of pictures representing Jews as small repulsive beasts (Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1949, p. 54) 

The rationale of this particular kind of hate propaganda was perhaps set out most clearly in 1938 by Julius Streicher in the pages of Der Stürmer: 

The Jews are a people of bastards, afflicted with all diseases, They are a people of criminals and outcasts. They are the carriers of disease and vermin among men . . . A rotten apple cannot be assimilated by a basketful of healthy apples. Mice and rats cannot be acknowledged as useful pets and live within the community     . . . . Bacteria, vermin and pests cannot be tolerated . . . for reasons of cleanliness and hygiene we must render them harmless by killing them off . . . Why should we repress our feeling for cleanliness and hygiene when it comes to the Jew? 

It was, we may presume, only by performing their killings in the medium of fantasies such as this, that the SS, German soldiers, and their conscripted  agents, could bring themselves to kill countless ordinary men, women and children without breaking down. 

The relevance of all this to the portrayal of Islamist soldiers as rats on the Guantanamo Bay T-shirts should be clear enough. 

In some respects, however, the British portrayal of drug-dealers as rats is almost as disturbing. The American T-shirts, after all, are not (presumably) part of any official government-sponsored campaign; the British posters are.  

Viewed in the particular historical context I have outlined here, the current campaign to persuade us to ‘rat on rats’ by informing on drug-dealers is not any more appalling than it is (or ought to be) when considered purely on its own terms. 

But the fact that such a historical context exists does make it all the more extraordinary that, in a supposedly civilised country, such a poster campaign should ever have been adopted and given some sort of official blessing, however limited. 

Unfamiliar as I was with the campaign until I read Dalrymple’s article, I initially assumed that it was the creation of some benighted minor public health official or anti-drugs campaigner. The offensive and disturbing posters had presumably found their way onto the stage of public debate through the backdoor without anyone paying very much attention to them.  

What was disquieting was to find that the ‘rat on a rat’ slogan has a rather different pedigree. The slogan appears to have emerged some ten years ago in America and was originally applied in a campaign directed against the illegal dumping of waste. In 1999, however, it was imported into Britain and re-directed against drug dealers by the police. In 2001 this campaign was relaunched by a senior police officer.  In a press release headed ‘Met Rat Catchers are back’, Sir John Stevens himself, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police,  pledged that ‘there would be no let-up in the Met’s determination to crack down on drug dealers in the capital’.

The ‘Rat on a Rat’ message, we were told, would be displayed on ‘perimeter fence panels, at football stadia, in football programmes and on roadside poster sites.’ Posters would also be displayed in what were once known as toilets, but were now described as ‘washrooms at pubs and clubs’. ‘Local press, ethnic press and radio stations will also be targeted by the campaign.’

One of the most depressing features of this campaign, obliquely acknowledged by Dalrymple in his original article, is that it actually contains a double message of contempt, comparing not only drug-dealers to rats but also those who are encouraged to inform upon them

Sir John Stevens. however, was not alone in commending the campaign to the British public. He was supported by a senior politician, who said this:

We have all seen how the abuse of drugs like crack cocaine eat away at our society bringing misery and destroying lives. It is everyone’s responsibility to tackle this problem and I fully support the Met in re-running the ‘Rat on a Rat’ campaign. Last year’s campaign was very successful in encouraging members of the public to work with the police to tackle the scourge of drugs and I wish this campaign every success.

Of course the fact that a politician chose to back a campaign which threatens to mobilise the psychology of hatred found in one of the most vicious forms of racism does not indicate that he is seeking consciously and deliberately to endorse such hatred.

What it does perhaps indicate is that the politician in question has lost touch with his own ordinary human sensitivity and appears to be completely lacking in any real sense either of history or of community.

And the name of the politician who was so eager to support this populist exercise in dehumanisation?

It was Tony Blair.

30 June 2003; posted 30 July      


© Richard Webster, 2003



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