Concentration Camps in America
The internet adage ‘Godwin’s Law’ suggests that the longer an online debate goes, the more likely it is that someone is going to make a reference to Adolf Hitler, and at that point the discussion becomes redundant. Nazi comparisons are often lazy and reductive, but the recent media frenzy about whether internment facilities housing immigrant children on America’s southern border can be labelled ‘concentration camps’ has brushed up against Mike Godwin’s law. It’s becoming chillingly more difficult to avoid some reference to the Nazis when exposed to the horror currently being inflicted by the Trump administration.
Lawyers interviewing more than fifty children detained at Clint, Texas last week reported the kind of conditions that might attract the attention of animal cruelty officials if dogs were the inmates. Children were found to be filthy and lice infested. Some hadn’t showered, their clothes covered in mucus. One boy had hair so badly matted it needed to be cut off. Many of the kids sleep on concrete floors, some with just one blanket, having to decide whether to lie on the blanket to protect themselves from the discomfort of the floor or under it in order to stay warm. A fourteen-year-old was found caring for a two-year-old because there was no-one else around to do so.
There’s more. At McAllen, Texas the conditions included ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food’.
Perhaps a Nazi comparison remains too harsh. But perhaps not. Would this paragraph from the New Yorker’s report describing a lice outbreak seem out of place in fascist Germany?
‘Six of the (roughly 25) children were found to have lice. And so they were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs, which is something you never do with a lice outbreak. And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb. So you had a whole cell full of kids who had beds and mats at one point…who were forced to sleep on the cement’.
Replace the word ‘children’ with ‘Jews’ in that paragraph. It’s frightening.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks comparing the situation to concentration camps sparked a stomach-churning debate in the Republican twittersphere, in which the semantics of labelling took centre-stage and the actual lice-ridden children formed less than a footnote.
Sometimes public attention can lock onto one small detail that becomes symbolic of a deeper malaise, and the lack of soap and toothbrushes has provided that moment. Ninth Circuit Judge William Fletcher appeared genuinely shocked by the sight of DOJ lawyer Sarah Fabian defending the idea that children don’t need soap or toothbrushes in order to be housed in ‘safe and sanitary’ conditions. Fletcher said he found it ‘inconceivable’ that the government would make such an argument.
Let’s be clear – this is not a budgetary or logistical issue. As the Texas Tribune has reported, local people have tried to donate diapers, soap and toys to Border Patrol facilities but been turned away. It seems no relief to the cruelty can be allowed.
This is mass child abuse, a crime against humanity. As Eugene Robinson put it in the Washington Post, the policy ‘has crossed the line from gratuitous cruelty to flat-out sadism’. It’s a horror show. These children are being tortured as part of deliberate government policy, paid for by American taxpayers.
Lice may be the least of our problems. Children are dying. We know their names – Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle (10), Jakelin Caal Maquin (7), Felipe Alonzo-Gomez (8), Mariee Juárez (20 months), Carlos Hernandez Vasquez (16), Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez (2) and Juan de León Gutiérrez (16). Before December 2018 no child had died in ICE custody in a decade. Now news of another child dying in detention barely competes in the news hubbub caused by a President permanently in the eye of his own hurricane. These deaths are not accidents. When you keep young children in appalling conditions some inevitably fall ill. If illnesses are not attended to quickly, vulnerable children can die. Deaths in these circumstances are entirely predictable, something those enforcing government policies in the Trump administration should be all too aware of.
The response from Trump and his acolytes has been typically pugnacious and disingenuous. Trump reflexively invokes the lack of his border wall (which Mexico was going to pay for) as well as Congressional intransigence when challenged on the matter. Of course, he could solve this disaster with one stroke of the pen, but Trump appears to see no need to do so when his state-run TV channel pundits cheer every cruelty as greater success each night. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham called the detention centres ‘summer camps’, and Hannity and Pirro deflect and distort as the news grows steadily worse. Yet, beyond the Fox/Trump echo chamber, the American public hasn’t reached that moment when they take to the streets, perhaps softened up by nearly three years of demonization and dehumanisation of ‘the other’ by this President, a man for whom racism is axiomatic.
There appears to be worse to come. Trump has threatened to use ICE to deport millions of immigrants, and although the raids have been temporarily put on hold, the President continues to believe that a war on immigrants plays well to his base, and divides the rest of the country in a way that is politically beneficial. When Trump took office arrivals at the southern border were the lowest since 1971, now there is a crisis, yet another of the President’s own making that he can claim credit for trying to solve.
Failing democracies often experience a slow slide into repression and dictatorship, scarcely noticed day by day. It need hardly be repeated – the concentration camps of Nazi Germany didn’t just spring up overnight. They were the deliberate result of a years-long campaign of vilification and dehumanisation against the Jews, one that started with the banal but ended as the greatest horror in human history.
Imagine this happened in another country. Imagine if Peru had started routinely separating thousands of children from their families and housing them in squalor, in a deliberate policy of racist cruelty. Imagine if those kids had started to die while in state custody. We would be discussing plans to invade that country, to overthrow the government and free the children. But this is happening in the United States, the land of the free, home of the brave, Reagan’s ‘City on a Hill’, the bastion of democracy and home of liberty.
Somewhere, somehow, America has lost its way. Donald Trump is torturing thousands of children as a political strategy, but still stands a good chance of winning the election next year. Incumbency presents a leader with a panoply of tools for electoral success. Many suggest that Trump won’t leave even if he loses. He disputed the 2016 election before and after it was contested, despite winning and becoming President. But if Trump wins in 2020 he will see victory as an endorsement of the unprecedented mayhem and cruelty that has been the hallmark of his first term. Trump will consolidate power, and use that power to enact his real vision of America. And then even god can’t help us.
Donald Trump is merely the incarnation of a deeper racial animus within American society, one that views the browning of the nation’s demographics as a threat that must be addressed before it is too late. If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done in the 1930’s as Germany descended from democracy into fascism, put those thoughts into action. America is operating a system of concentration camps. Children are dying. That time is now.