Among the legendary comedy skits of British television is a 2006 Mitchell and Webb piece called “Are We The Baddies?” It features two Nazi SS officers who, preparing for a Russian assault, look at their own uniforms replete with skulls on the caps and wonder if they’re actually the bad guys in the historical narrative.
Americans with a sense of shame and self-awareness are now forced to ask themselves the same question in a far more serious context.
It has now become apparent that our federal government has perhaps irrevocably destroyed the families of hundreds of asylum seekers by ripping children from their parents, then destroying the records of which children belong to which parents, and losing track in many cases both of the parents and the children involved.
The children were kept in often horrific conditions–one child was apparently unbathed for 85 days and infested with lice, while others were bound to chairs naked in cold cells–as their parents were unceremoniously shipped away with no knowledge of where their children were or when, if ever, they would see them again. In some cases Trump administration cronies like Betsy Devos with conservative religious adoption businesses and organizations have been profiting by housing the stolen children. As the Trump administration, facing withering public condemnation and judicial demands, begins to comply with court orders to reunite the families, it’s not clear at this point that they’re capable of complying in many cases even if they wanted to.
Worse, these horrors are not born of incompetence or even mere callous insouciance. They are an intentional act of political terror by our government, perpetrated against some of the most vulnerable and desperate people in the world for purely racist reasons.
“Terror” is a strong word to use, and some might consider it a provocation. But I use it in the most profound and deliberate seriousness.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Trump’s separation policy, supported for the worst reasons by his most openly prejudiced advisers including Stephen Miller, fits the bill precisely.
First, it is illegal. Kidnapping children from parents, particularly for profit, is a heinous crime. Abusing asylum seekers is an international human rights violation. Jailing children unnecessarily is yet another crime. All of them are unconstitutional violations of the bill of rights, and they are illegal by law under international treaties signed and approved by Congress.
Second, it is on its face an act of violence. Wailing children were in many cases literally torn from the arms of weeping and fiercely objecting mothers and fathers. In other cases literally reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps, they were taken by deception, the parents told that their children were being simply taken to bathe–not knowing that it might be the last time they would ever touch their loved ones.
Third and perhaps most importantly, it is an act of intentional intimidation. The entire purpose of this policy, as Chief of Staff John Kelly stated to Wolf Blitzer, as Jeff Sessions admitted on Fox News and as internal White House documents show, is to deter further immigrants and asylum seekers by making them fear that their children will be taken from them if they try. As doing so is explicitly illegal, the Trump Administration has attempted to deny that deterrence is their actual goal. But the purpose is not only public record, it is obvious on its face. There is no credible immigration policy reason for this cruel barbarism beyond painting a picture of an America so brutally unwelcoming that people will prefer to take their chances being raped and murdered in gang violence than attempt to cross to the nation that still absurdly celebrates its outdated statue of liberty.
Fourth, this evil is being committed by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation against its weakest civilians, people who have uprooted themselves and their families to make an incredibly dangerous crossing through hostile territory because death and starvation were the only alternatives. Even if the resources of the United States were stretched thin, it would be incumbent on us as a decent people to maximally ensure the safety of these poor souls even if we could not provide them shelter. But this is a country that just delivered a $1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to its wealthiest citizens, and that just increased its military budget to $700 billion, more than the next dozen countries combined. The country’s agriculture sector is facing a shortage of needed migrant workers. The president’s country club just applied for visas for several dozen more foreign workers.
Which brings us to the final phrase of the terrorism definition: “for political purposes.” The Trump Administration is pursuing this policy not for practical or economic or national security reasons. Republicans are constricting immigration by all means available–whether through travel bans, deportations or even shockingly now through a denaturalization task force to strip naturalized citizens of their citizenship and voting rights–as a matter of political self-preservation and structural advantage through institutionalized racism. Some on the right are refreshingly honest about this policy: as Republicans long dependent on the Southern Strategy of white identity politics face the demographic winter of a fast-growing minority-majority nation, they must explicitly work to minimize the number of non-white voters in the country through both voter suppression and immigration restriction. Encouraging stronger birth rates among whites through domestic anti-abortion laws is also key to the revanchist demographic program. Ripping children from the parents of would-be immigrants isn’t about making America great again. It’s about making America white again, for purely political reasons.
My friends on the left would note that America has always been guilty of horrific abuses: after all, this is the nation of the Trail of Tears, slavery, lynchings, Japanese internment camps, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, a racist prison-industrial complex and countless destabilizing CIA-backed coups that are in large part responsible for the current Central American refugee crisis. But particularly with regard to our more modern history, there is something especially intensely, viscerally disgusting about the use of violent terror against migrant asylum seekers on our own border, destroying their families for the grossest and most nefarious of reasons.
We have become the baddies indeed. Our only path to redemption lies in repudiating the perpetrators, holding them fully accountable, offering restitution to the victims, and promising insofar as possible that this country will never again allow these crimes to be conducted in our names.