It’s been a pretty appalling week for the United States of America. Which is saying something.
How it Happens Here
by: Storey Clayton
The Trump administration has ordered ICE to arrest and incarcerate everyone attempting to cross the border and is subsequently separating children from their families, shipping them off to overcrowded detention facilities where, reportedly, they are not allowed to be touched by human hands. There is doubt about the quality of record-keeping involved here and whether some children have been lost and to what degree the tracking connecting a child with their appropriate parents has broken down completely.
Honestly, as truly horrifying as all that is, it’s not the really shocking bit. The shocking bit is how many regular people I’ve seen virulently defend this practice over the last few days. These are human beings, many of whom I know, and they are adamant about not only the defensibility of this policy, but its necessity.
It’s a hard thing to process.
Most people I see reacting to these reactions seem to be doubling down on the deplorable line. These people are irredeemable, they were always irredeemable, and even talking to them as though they are humans probably makes one irredeemable too.
As tempting as such a line of self-righteous anger is, as even understandable as it seems in the wake of the sheer inhumanity espoused by “the other,” I think it’s important not to give in to this belief structure. Like the notion that all support for Trump stems from racism and sexism alone, it makes hope for reconciliation or progress very scant indeed. It also fails to really ring true: were all these people fine and good in November 2008 when they voted for Obama? Or in September 2001 when they trotted out their flags and mourned the nation alongside the rest of us? (I know, this is not a line of reaction I particularly relate to, but Barbara Lee and I are in the very thin minority here, so I think we can safely go with this as a relatable example.) Did Trump brainwash these formerly acceptable people into the unadulterated evil we are now ready to relegate them to?
I think it’s clear that a certain amount of commitment to Trump is in play here. I don’t really believe that, in their heart of hearts, most such folks truly believe in a policy of wrenching children away from their parents to bung them in indefinite no-touching facilities. Nor that they would have authored such a policy on their own. I think that they see defending Trump as vital to their personhood and, by extension, a compelling intellectual activity. We Americans get plenty of practice in self-justifying all manner of relatively indefensible behavior, from our disproportionate carbon footprint to our share of material consumption and wealth to our treatment of foreigners who don’t attempt to enter the United States. Adding a little light state-sanctioned kidnapping to the list is hardly a big leap.
And yet, of course, this is the road to every nightmare and doomsday scenario we can imagine.
Increasingly, we are imagining these scenarios. I remember it being a quirky novelty of my upbringing that I was raised to be vigilant of a hypothetical 1930s Germany emerging in my own society while others blithely embraced the future as the home of unfettered optimism. Perhaps even stranger as I have no immediate ancestors who lived through Nazi Germany, nor any known Jewish heritage. It’s been a strange experience in the last two years to see the tables turned so hard and fast, to suddenly be surrounded by sincere scared people who believe it’s 1938 Germany right now, rolled up with the Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 for good measure, except even worse than all three. Obviously, I’ve had relatively strained patience for a lot of this rhetoric, in part because so much of Trump’s approach to governance has replicated Obama who replicated W Bush, and in part because many of the worst policies were immediately blocked by courts or other interventions. Far be it from me to believe wholeheartedly in the preeminence of checks and balances, given that same have allowed ballooning defense budgets, unchecked wealth inequality, stifling poverty, and of course unending foreign bombings, now almost uniformly committed by (literal) unfeeling robots. Among recent atrocities, Raqqa and Mosul were “liberated” by a tonnage of explosives that would make Westmoreland blush, bombing a place to save it now being so second nature to US policy that we don’t mind killing way more civilians than Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) could dream of as long as we can claim we liberated the remaining corpse-filled rubble. It’s admittedly hard for me to get excited about how much worse the current government is when that sort of behavior has become so normalized as to no longer be newsworthy, no matter which party is in power.
And yet, the state-sponsored kidnapping feels different. It has the power to shock in an era overwhelmed and, by extension, jaded. It’s not worse than all the drone strikes and the collateral murder, mind you, but it’s at least a new kind of awful (an original sin, if you will) and therein lies the power of the policy to both inspire backlash and highlight the desperate intellectual circumstances of those who leap to defend it. In being closer to home than Mosul or Raqqa or Yemen or Afghanistan, it captivates us in a way those far-off seemingly scary places do not. And while not all of us have children, we’ve all been children. And most of us have moved for one reason or another at some point in our life. We can all too easily imagine being that poor huddled child in the corner, at the end of a perilous journey, realizing that nothing in life may ever feel safe or comfortable again. Or worse, perhaps, the parent who knows not when they will see that child again, if ever.
It’s a lovely fairy tale we’re being told, this notion of deterrent. I’m not convinced, at this point, that deterrence exists at all. Yes, theoretically, I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who isn’t robbing banks because they fear getting caught and going to jail. But drug addicts take opiods, knowing they may be laced with lethal levels of fentanyl, every day in large quantities. Rebels fight in Syria, knowing that if Assad’s army doesn’t get them, some other rebel group or Russia or the US will. People are either horrendously bad at predicting their outcomes or they remain indifferent to the consequences of actions they are determined to take. In either case, deterrence fails spectacularly.
Of course, even if it were an effective deterrent, the state kidnapping would be morally reprehensible. As the old debate example goes, the death penalty for shoplifting would probably deter marginally more thieves (though, crucially, not all of them). However, there are concerns here with fairness and proportionality.
So, how does it happen here? Could it possibly be true that our nation can be led astray by one person who was barely elected and enough supporters don’t want to be embarrassed so that they fall in line? What incredible power could one such man wield in a democracy to make this happen?
It’s perhaps instructive to look at the past here as well. It seems unlikely and strange to imagine that every German alive in 1925 was a monster-in-waiting and that every German alive in 1965 was a monster-in-hiding. This certainly has nothing to do with how we talk or act or think about those Germans or Germany in general, even though most of the Germans alive in 1925 were alive in 1945 and the same for 1965. And it’s not really what our policy was toward Germany in either instance, though perhaps it was close in 1925 and that contributed to everything that followed (see Versailles, Treaty of). So what gives?
Many of you out there are saying something about authority right now. We are conditioned to accept authority and fall in line. Just look at what awfulness was created by the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment! People love authority, even outside of Russia, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to follow it, win approval, and get rewarded.
Except that these studies have recently been largely discredited. Really. Along with the Marshmallow Test and (oops) up to 90% of scientific research. Surely we respond to authority and leaders since The Prince have learned how to manipulate people with fear and intimidation into doing their bidding. But I think something more obvious and insidious is primarily at play. It was at play in Germany as it is in play here as it is in play pretty much wherever dehumanization is sold.
The notion that one nation (your nation) is better and thus its people are better and more deserving than another’s. That simple notion, which can also be translated as nationalism or jingoism, is really the root cause of contemporary inhumanity to fellow humans. We can argue about primary causes in the past and overall historical harm counts, can throw around misguided organized religions and megalomaniacal dictators. But without patriotism, the modern leader wouldn’t have a chance. Patriotism makes people sign up willingly for ICE and Homeland Security, the Army and Air Force, the Marines and the Navy and everything in between. Patriotism convinces people to say insipid, dangerous things like “my country, right or wrong” and worse, actually believe them. Patriotism makes people believe that putting on a uniform legalizes murder, that pledging allegiance justifies kidnapping, that a flag is worth assaulting for.
Donald Trump is a very weak man, physically. He is out of shape and accustomed to luxury goods. He would be in no position whatsoever to force anyone to do anything without the compulsion of patriotism, the loyalty to country that volunteers people to “just follow orders” and wrest screaming babies from their mothers, to stack naked and defiled inmates atop each other in grotesque human pyramids, to authorize that a whole neighborhood should pay the ultimate price for containing one “high-value target” (human being).
There are other contributing factors, of course. Authority and the desire to get ahead. Desperation that de facto drafts many into the military in the first place. Staggering expenditures on weapons of war and destruction. A complacent sense of certainty that pervades most American actions.
And yet, without patriotism, all of these go cold. Desperation alone is not sufficient to make someone a trained killer, nor is authority so mighty here (or, indeed, in Germany) as to force people to choose dehumanization over all else. Mere access to the means is not enough to creative motive, so the flashy firepower is just an accessory. And certainty this strong can only derive from an inculcated knee-jerk response, the utter conviction that we and we alone are the good guys and everyone else deserves to die or at least suffer for that fact.
The Germans who perpetuated the atrocities in the Holocaust or fought for Hitler’s expansionism on the western or eastern front weren’t all racists. They weren’t all committed Nazis. They weren’t all ideologues or Hitler devotees. But they were all German patriots. And that was enough to make them agents of perhaps the most atrocious and despicable regime of all time, the example we’ve held up in the subsequent 73 years and counting as That Which Shall Not Be Repeated. It’s often said that they were “good Germans” and this gets something close to the mark, a near-miss. They were Germans first. They were Germans before they were humans. They were patriots.
Don’t be a patriot. Stand against drone strikes and bombings and war without end that mostly kills civilians and labels them insurgents later. Refuse to help incarcerate toddlers. Don’t stand for flags and anthems and sayings that celebrate the prioritization of the patch of land you were born on or now claim as superior to all other patches of land, to the point where you deserve to live and they deserve to die. Be a human. Be merely a human.
And, by extension, don’t criticize this latest awful action as un-American. It sounds catchy, it may persuade a couple people, but it’s not true. Separating children from their families by force is classically American. We were built on slavery, on the genocide of the Native American peoples, on war for greed and gain and kidnapping and manipulation. You may choose to think of America mostly as the place that fought the Nazis we’ve discussed so much here, but we weren’t even in that war to stop Nazis. We were there because we got attacked, because Japan hit first, because our interests were in danger. We were all too happy to lock people up here wholesale, to set civilians on fire in Dresden in Tokyo, so long as it protected our notion of our self-interest. By calling this wrong because it’s un-American, you not only ignore our very real history, but you shift the debate to a place it has no business being: whether or not this policy serves American interests or belief structures. And then you’re in the box with the War on Terror and the assassination of Central American Presidents and bombing Cambodia and napalm and drones and Lord knows what. Don’t go there. It’s wrong because it’s inhuman. Full stop.
Be a human. Not a patriot.