The Banal Evil at the Heart of the "Kids in Concentration Camps" Debate

Recently, the U.S. has been engulfed by a national identity crisis triggered by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term ‘concentration camp’ to describe the detention centers along the Southern border where migrant children are currently being held. Whether or not the use of the term is appropriate (I happen to agree that it is), the fact that our government no longer hides the atrocities it commits in our name is deeply disturbing. Whether we are aware of it or not, Americans do not care enough to stop them. These atrocities are banal. Putting children in concentration camps is boring to us.

It used to be, back in the good old Nixon years, that the government tried to hide everything it did outside of the Geneva Conventions. After the CIA instigated the 1973 Chilean coup d'état, the U.S. government denied involvement for decades. In the early 1980s, the Iran-Contra scandal nearly cost Ronald Reagan his Presidency. The list of known covert government actions from the 20th century is vast and incomplete. Many of these known actions share little in common with each other but for the simple fact that the government made every possible effort to keep these actions and events out of the public discourse. The government tried to hide them from us. But we must also reckon with the truth that, to some degree, we the people were complicit in our own ignorance. Americans preferred to keep these actions off our mainland and out of our daily lives so that we didn’t have to take responsibility for them. That moat of ignorance gave us regular folks the excuses we needed to ignore the atrocities committed in our name. Those were the good old days of the 20th century when no one knew, so no one could prove we did not care.

By the time President Bush came to power in 2000, attempts to hide these covert actions proved increasingly difficult. Too much had been declassified under Clinton’s administration to deny the truth. In response, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Bush simply decided not to hide them anymore. Instead, the administration planned to control the debate about these atrocities. 

The shift began soon after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. The revelation in early 2005 of Torture Memos added to the then still raw fallout from the 2004 disclosure of the torture of prisoners at Abu Graib, in which waterboarding first came into public view. But the true transition point came in 2006 when George Bush’s administration officially acknowledged for the first time the existence of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and CIA black sites, places where civilians were held and tortured off of the U.S. mainland.

Andrew Dugan, a researcher at Gallup, a polling company, produced a report in 2014 titled A Retrospective Look at How Americans View Torture. In that report, Dugan wrote that “a new chapter began in the debate over torture with the Washington Post's bombshell report that the CIA had been hiding and interrogating terrorism suspects in secret prisons, known as ‘black sites,’ located in parts of Eastern Europe, Thailand and Afghanistan. In September 2006, Gallup found that nearly six in 10 Americans preferred that the CIA ‘abide by Geneva Conventions standards’ when questioning a terrorist suspect, which probably seemed unlikely to many Americans once they found out about the remote, clandestine nature of these prisons. And the Senate report now plainly states the CIA did not follow these standards. Fewer than four in 10 (38%) in the 2006 poll favored the use of ‘more forceful techniques.’” 

With public sentiment regarding the Bush administration’s tactics so negative in 2006, why then did they choose to acknowledge these black sites that same year? Perhaps it’s because they could not maintain the facade of secrecy any longer. Clandestine detention centers and torture facilities had been rumored to exist for years, with TV shows from before 2005 (such as 24) featuring torture heavily in plot lines. By 2006, everyone knew about them. So the Bush administration switched gears. Once it became clear that secrecy was no longer an option, the administration decided instead to control the narrative.

Over these last years of the Bush administration, the administration waged an information war with the media, using terms such as ‘war on terror,’ ‘enhanced interrogation,’ and ‘enemy combatant’ to do the heavy lifting. These new words did their job relatively well, but the public still demanded inquiries for awhile. President Obama campaigned and won the presidency in 2008 after promising to shut these detention centers down. Little did we know that his election would be the clearest public repudiation of torture we would ever see.

Bush’s efforts paid off towards the end of his term. By the time congressional hearings and investigations began in 2009, Americans had largely stopped caring about torture. A majority of Americans were already satisfied that the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects was justified (55%), rather than not justified (36%)(Source: Gallup). Obama finally accepted his failure to shut down the facility in the early 2010s, but Americans had long since forgotten about it. For so long, Americans had met the discovery of these detention centers and the events that occurred within them with horror, or at least discomfort. But at some point during the early Obama years, we stopped caring. 

Still, distance mattered to us. CIA black sites were in other countries after all. During the Obama years, Americans felt that these detention centers were remote in proximity to our daily concerns if only because they were remote in proximity to American soil. Sure, we knew about them, but if the centers were hard to get to, we could still excuse ourselves from protests and civil action. We may have learned to live with the existence of detention centers during the Bush years, but their location remained important to us during the Obama years. Thankfully, Obama switched tactics away from interrogations to assassinations by drone strikes. When he killed a U.S. citizen, the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011 using a drone strike and without due process (which is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution), we didn’t mind so much. We just didn’t want it to be too close to us. Yemen and Afghanistan were far away. Guantanamo Bay was closer, but it was still in Cuba, a country conveniently isolated by the U.S. embargo. Later, when Obama lifted the embargo in 2016 on his way out of the door, Americans hopped on planes heading South with glee and not a second thought was paid to Guantanamo Bay. We had completely forgotten about the sinister nature of these detention centers by the time Trump took office.

One of the first things that Trump did when he took office was to ensure that Guantanamo Bay would remain open indefinitely.  This was no surprise. Trump, like many Americans, believes that torture is useful, and has said that he would “bring back waterboarding, and a hell of a lot worse.” By 2018, with immigration facilities along the Southern border bursting at the seams, Trump’s admin began opening new detention centers and putting them to the brutal task of housing children that U.S. authorities had taken from their parents. 

Granted, these facilities are not intended for wartime use, the way CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay are. They do hold civilians in inhumane conditions, just not the sort of civilians the U.S. government would call ‘enemy combatants’ (It should be noted that Trump has used the term ‘enemy combatant’ to describe these civilians).

But these detention centers are different from black sites and Guantanamo Bay in another important way as well: they are on American soil. For the first time since WW2 when the Japanese were interned in concentration camps by the U.S. government, these detention facilities are within our borders, in our midst, and we can do something about them if we want to. In a cruel twist, Trump is planning to reboot of one of those old concentration camps that the U.S. used to hold Japanese Americans back in WW2 to hold migrant children in the coming months.

The inevitable conclusion of this 40-year story from Nixon to Reagan, and from Bush to Obama to Trump, is the following: now that we know about these places, and now that they are on American soil, we can no longer hide from the fact that we Americans just do not care. If we did care, then these detention centers would not exist and the suffering of the people inside of them would not occur by our hands. But we do not care. We might get upset for a moment or two when we think about it, but then we go on with our day. That’s it. That will be the story. We will do nothing because children in concentration camps is so boring.

A personal note:

If I have learned one thing from visiting Dachau and from all of the stories of suffering from the Holocaust, it is the lesson that Hannah Arendt brought home so vividly in her 1963 book Eichmann In Jerusalem: that societies can devolve into madness imperceptibly when evil becomes boring, uninteresting, and unrecognizable. The growing banality of evil is one of the most chilling changes in American society. It must be stopped from growing further. If we ignore violence against children and human rights violations now, then they will become boring eventually, and we might even stop noticing them altogether. The Liz Cheney’s of the country will say, “they are not children in concentration camps, they are illegal aliens in detention centers.” It is up to the rest of us to humanize them and treat them like the children they are. 

If you are like me when I’m bored, daydreaming about how I would encourage Hitler to keep painting in order to prevent the atrocities of the camps of WW2, then it’s time to stop dreaming and put your money where your mouth is. What are you willing to do to save the children in those camps down in Texas? 

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