Photo courtesy of CNBC

“Mom, I’m fine.”

Those were the final words of Wadea Al-Fayoume, the six-year-old Palestinian American who was fatally stabbed 26 times at his home in Plainfield Township, Illinois on October 14, 2023. The young boy’s mother, 32-year-old Hanaan Shahin, also suffered more than a dozen serious stab injuries but survived. She could not attend her son’s funeral which was held two days later as she was still hospitalised.

Wadea was a hapless victim of a horrific hate crime. He was killed because he was a Muslim and a Palestinian. His assailant was a 71-year-old man, Joseph Czuba, the family’s landlord, who had allegedly screamed, “You Muslims must die!” during the attack. He is also reported to have shouted, “You are killing our kids in Israel. You Palestinians don’t deserve to live!”

Wadea’s family had no reason to suspect what was to occur as the landlord and tenants had previously enjoyed cordial relations. Czuba had bought the little boy toys, even built him a tree house and allowed him to swim in a makeshift pool. “He was friendly to the whole family but especially to the kid, who he treated like a grandson,” according to Wadea’s uncle, Yousef Hannon. On that fateful Saturday morning, the child had run to Czuba for a hug upon seeing him and was instead brutally knifed to death.

The crime did not take place in a vacuum. The hatred towards Muslims was a result of a toxic media diet culminating in the death of an innocent child and severe injuries to his equally innocent mother. It is among the countless, tragic incidents that underscore how negative media portrayals make it more acceptable to attack other groups of human beings and result in real world violence.

In the days leading to the violent crime, Czuba had grown paranoid about his tenants. A regular listener of conservative radio talk shows, he had become obsessed with the Israel-Palestine conflict and feared that Shahin was going to “call over her Palestinian friends or family to harm them,” Czuba’s wife Mary told investigators. Czuba was thus spurred by the hateful rhetoric and anti-Palestinian racism that reached him via at least one and possibly many media platforms.

The large, diverse gathering of mourners at Wadea’s funeral saw this lethal connection; they carried placards chastising the media for its role in the child’s killing. One placard read, “One-sided statements and media lies fuelled the hate that killed Wadea’s life.” At the funeral, Oday Al-Fayoume, Wadea’s father lamented, “They talk about us [Muslims] like criminals and terrorists and the Israelis as heroes.”

Illinois State Representative and Palestinian American Abdelnasser Rashid affirmed, “This was directly connected to the dehumanising of Palestinians that has been allowed over the last week by our media, by our elected officials who have lacked the moral compass and lacked the courage to call for something as simple as de-escalation and peace.”

Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations concurred. “Wadea paid the price for the atmosphere of hate and otherisation and dehumanisation that, frankly, I think we are seeing here in the United States as a result of the irresponsible leadership and lopsided one-sided statements and coverage that we’re seeing in the media,” Rehab said.

How are grave crimes and barbarity allowed to happen? A cue from history is that the Nazis engaged in dehumanising the Jewish population long before the Holocaust. Linguistic studies of Nazi propaganda have shown how words such as rats, lice, cockroaches, foxes and vultures were used to describe Jews in a bid to depict them as evil and scheming agents devoid of all human feelings. The Third Reich was thus able to defy moral barriers to the genocide of six million Jews during the Second World War.

Similarly, the minority Tutsis in Rwanda were referred to by the Hutu majority as cockroaches. The call to “kill the cockroaches!” reverberated brazenly on the radio and in the newspapers, leading to the murder of one million Tutsis in 100 days in 1994. The genocide promoters also used other metaphors such as “cut down the tall trees” to turn Hutus against their Tutsis (Tutsis were generally taller than the Hutus). Tutsis were hunted down and mercilessly killed in schools, churches, hospitals and even in prisons. What began with words of derision ended in a blood bath on a horrific scale.

Today, on the streets of the besieged Gaza Strip, Palestinian blood is flowing freely while calls for an immediate ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears. A genocide is unfolding with the fullest backing of Western powers. Had Western leaders acted in a morally responsible and more constrained manner without unconditionally giving Israel the green light to “finish them off” and parroting “Israel has a right to self-defence (read: right to commit genocide),”, the mass atrocities may have been prevented.

That Israel has waged war on the Palestinians for decades is a fact largely ignored in most Western media reports while Hamas is misrepresented as the sole antagonist. The opening question thrown in nearly every media interview at Palestinian spokespersons is, “Do you condemn Hamas?” to test their moral compass. Refusal to do so runs the risk of being labelled a terrorist sympathiser or worse, antisemite. While Palestinians are forced to present their moral credentials, their Israeli counterparts are rarely interrogated in this hostile manner.

The line of questioning evinces the anti-Palestinian bias, further victimising the victims of several decades of Israeli aggression who are facing a horrendous choice of expulsion or extermination. As Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, asserted, “Regrettably, history for some media and politicians starts when Israelis are killed. Our people have endured one deadly year after another.”

Since Hamas’ October 7 attacks, thousands of men, women and children have been slaughtered by Israel’s relentless ariel bombardment in the densely populated and heavily under resourced Gaza. Their only crime was to be born in the world’s largest concentration camp controlled by an apartheid regime. Their lands stolen, livelihoods destroyed and hopes shattered. By stripping out crucial context, global mainstream media channels make it easier for Israel to carry out mass atrocities and portray itself as a victim.

Despite the carnage, Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, insisted, “There’s no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” There’s no humanitarian crisis because she and other Israeli genocide promoters do not see Palestinians as human beings. Israel’s genocidal intent was stated in no uncertain terms and now it’s all about eliminating the human animals. “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” vowed Yoav Gallant, Israel’s Defense Minister after cutting off water, electricity, fuel and food to the people of Gaza.

Stories of Israeli civilians are widely publicised but the same coverage is not given for Palestinians. The names of the hostages taken by Hamas, their faces and stories are known, but Palestinians are mere numbers. There’s outrage over the October 7 Hamas attacks but there’s silence on the decades of brutal Israeli repression. No spotlight on how Israel has been torturing Palestinians since 1947 or calls for Israel, as an occupying power, to uphold international humanitarian law. We’re told that is savage to kill families at gunpoint but acceptable to bomb them to death or bury them under rubble (i.e. collateral damage).

Palestinian children are writing their names on their bodies – palms, wrists and legs – so that they can be identified if they die. Those who survive may never be able to fully overcome the psychological trauma inflicted on them. Israel is drunk on taking revenge and in its blind rage, creating the conditions for more violence. The media must not be complicit in its depraved mission.