Parents across the United States these days have been taking their children to see the newest US animation blockbuster Toy Story. Schools have ended and long summer days require entertainment for children anywhere around the world.
But soon after watching Toy Story, these same families return home to switch on the TV and see shocking reports of children being kept in cages in appalling conditions at the US-Mexico border. They hear Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan ask for more funds to continue these terrible practices and read stories about an NGO director making millions out of the cruel detention of these children. Then they get sucked into the raging debate of whether these “family separation centres” can be called “concentration camps” or not.
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At some point, they may then begin to wonder how they had just taken their children to see a platoon of white toys come to life and are now hearing about thousands of children being treated like lifeless objects. They may ponder what it means when they see inanimate toys become anthropomorphic characters while real children are treated like lifeless toys; what it means when a culture humanises lifeless toys and dehumanises living children.
This cognitive dissonance permeating American culture makes raising children in the US with some basic sense of decency indeed an excruciating task. How do you reconcile for yourself as a parent these two parallel realities which segregate children and assign them one of two categories – human and unhuman, deserving of a normal childhood and condemned to indefinite incarceration?
Bodies of evidence
What is happening on the US-Mexico border is a national disgrace and a regional calamity that extends deep into Latin America. An image of the dead bodies of a father and a child, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, has shocked the conscience of the world, as President Donald Trump and his goons continue to justify their inhumane activities along the border. Father and daughter lied face down at the side of a dirty river – the very picture of cruelty and terror the US government has unleashed on poor children and their parents.
What desperation must a family have endured to subject themselves to such terror?
Those who survive such dangerous crossings have a horrid constellation of cages waiting for them. “On any given day,” we read, “2,000 children are in Border Patrol custody, and the problems are hardly confined to one facility.” These staggering numbers offer just a glimpse of the unimaginable suffering children in particular have to endure in what has become the new normal in the US.
In other reports, we read: “Migrant children held in Texas facility need access to doctors … Inhumane conditions for detained children amount to ’emergency public health crisis’.” After a visit to the border House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of a few courageous voices who defy the corrupt leadership of the Democratic Party, correctly declared: “This isn’t about a few bad eggs. This is a violent culture. How on earth can CBP’s culture be trusted to care for refugees humanely?”
The calamity at the US-Mexico border is not an aberration. The US has a long and dark track record of treating non-white people, both children and adults, as subhuman. This is deeply rooted in the racist American subconscious, and for an entire history that began with the genocide of Native Americans, this country has not been able to cure itself. Close to 63 million Americans freely voted for Trump. He is not an accident or an exception either.
Consider the fact that the most racists among the patrol agents were part of an online KKK-like gathering. “[M]embers used the page to joke about migrant deaths and share sexually violent and threatening posts about several Democratic lawmakers, including, in particular, Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
These racist hoodlums have now the highest elected office of the land ordering them to do what they love to: destroy the life of parents and children running away from the murderous thuggery of US foreign policies in their homelands.
Are these ‘concentration camps’?
There has been an intense debate about what these ghastly cages can be called: anything from the Orwellian Newspeak of “family separation centres” to the perfectly accurate “concentration camps”.
There have been some Americans who have been up in arms against calling these dungeons “concentration camps” and have criticised “efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events”. The Holocaust remains a unique form of genocide that will have to be considered with very focused attention. It is perfectly logical for Holocaust survivors and their families to object to easy unconscientious analogies.
But the use of the term “concentration camps” to describe the dreadful facilities where thousands of children are being kept at the US-Mexico border is by no means a trivialisation of the Holocaust. Throughout history, proponents of white supremacy and other racist ideologies across the world have used concentration camps to unleash their primitive violence on those who they have deemed inferior and unworthy of normal human life – whether it is in war-torn Yugoslavia, or Khmer-Rouge-ruled Cambodia, or colonial-era Kenya, etc.
Yet there have been others, including more than 300 scholars of the Holocaust, who signed a letter saying that rejecting parallels “makes learning from the past almost impossible”, who have approved of this characterisation. And as one Jewish historianAnna Lind-Guzik, put it, “Yes, we should call border detention centers ‘concentration camps.’ It isn’t just accurate. It’s necessary.”
In the end, whether we call them “family separation centers” or “concentration camps”, what is going on at the US-Mexico border is a humanitarian crisis and a moral catastrophe, which must trouble every decent human being.
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The point here is not debating terms but measuring the moral collapse of a nation. Much of the debate about the admissibility of the term “concentration camp” in this case is in fact a subterfuge to avoid the real issue – the fact that a powerful state uses and abuses its power to target the weakest and most vulnerable children on planet earth and then the very same nation makes films about the delicate feeling of toys!
As a parent, I do want my children to consume film, fiction, poems, and to lead a happy, healthy and decent life as adults. The extraordinary experiences of successive waves of immigrants from around the globe to the US offer an exceptionally rich and powerful repertoire of stories to be told, lessons to be learned, lives to be enriched and ennobled.
But a deeply flawed culture might want to ask itself how it conceals its dangerous cruelties by misdirecting its humanity towards humanised stuffed animals while dehumanising living and suffering human beings.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.