Whirlwinds of Cruelty
Achtung, Flüchtlinge! Amerikanische Konzentrationslager
by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2019 • Thomas Adcock
NORTH CHATHAM, New York—U.S.A.
Two years and seven months ago, a bankrupt casino magnate, bigot and vainglorious “reality television” braggart became president of the United States (with a little help, to be sure, from comrades in Moscow). To mark the occasion, yet another turn for the worse in the history of my country, I borrowed a famous phrase of yesteryear for an essay published in this space at that dark time. In the wake of a compromised Election Day here in the U.S.A., I wrote that November 8, 2016 is “a date which will live in infamy.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) first said these words on December 8, 1941 on the occasion of a Japanese air strike on American naval ships at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was a devastating sneak attack that December morning, one encouraged by Japan’s confederate, Adolf Hitler; an attack that brought us Yanks into a world of resistance against régimes dependent on crushing democracy and decency—régimes led by small men on large stages who pretend to be patriots.
Decades ago, it was Hitler strutting before German crowds seduced by the power of his violent fantasies. Over and over, he screeched his slogan of resentment: “Mach Deutschland wieder großartig!“
Nowadays, it is the loud-mouthed xenophobe Donald J. Trump yawping before his cult with a localization of his progenitor’s war cry: “Make America great again!”
These pageantries, past and present, stir whirlwinds of cruelty—cruelty piled on inhumanity piled on babarity. Repetition makes it difficult to keep track of disgraceful acts committed by the contemptible. We are exhausted by our attempts to catalogue. As soon as we form unified objection to one outrage, there comes another to distract us. We forget one affront, and then another; there is so much to bear. We grow numb.
In an essay for The Atlantic magazine in October of last year, for instance, journalist Adam Serwer spoke of tedium in bearing witness each and every day as dank winds blow heavily through Mr. Trump’s Washington:
“This week alone, news broke that the Trump administration was seeking to ethnically cleanse more than 193,000 American children of immigrants whose temporary protected status had been revoked…that the Department of Homeland Security had lied about creating a database of children that would make it possible to unite them with families [Trump] had arbitrarily destroyed, that the White House was considering a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students, and that it would deny visas to the same-sex partners of foreign officials. At a rally in Mississippi, a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has said that Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump has nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her when she was a teenager. “’Lock her up!’ they shouted.”
—NOTE: Last month, Mr. Trump was himself credibly accused of rape, adding to more than twenty charges of sexual misconduct by women—including his first of three wives. Photographic evidence to the contrary, the alleged rapist claimed to have never met his newest accuser—the writer E. Jean Carroll. Besides which, he charmingly continued, the lady is “not my type.”
When some of us here gave premature voice to parallels between Herr Hitler’s political rise and that of Mr. Trump, we were quickly shushed by frightened friends and the usual suspects among the let’s-all-calm-down factions of our political and press institutions. But I am pleased to observe impatience with, if not yet rebellion against, the established complaisance. Case in point, an editorial in late June in a western regional daily newspaper: the Salt Lake Tribune in the state of Utah.
Nazi-era Germany and modern America are “not morally equivalent,” the Tribune first dutifully stated. But then: “[W]e probably don’t have reason to fear that this is necessarily going to become that. But then, we never do. Because that starts as this.” By which the paper suggested an equivalent creep of cruelty recognizable to both Germans and Americans: “It worked its way up, from nasty political speeches—check!—to politicians seeking and gaining power with promises to protect the purity of the nation from foreign invasions—check!—to denying basic human rights and decency to people of an unfavored class—check!”
The author Lucian K. Truscott IV published a June 29 essay in the online magazine Salon, headlined “This is the Week it Became Accurate to Compare Trump to Hitler.” Scion of a distinguished military family—his grandfather fought nazis and fascists during World War 2 as commander of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division in World War 2—Mr. Truscott wrote of horrors that include:
• An asylum-seeking father and his young daughter, fleeing deadly gang violence in El Salvador, drowned in the Rio Grande because the official entry point from Mexico to America was unaccountably closed.
• A group of American lawyers who discovered of a secret concentration camp in Texas for children separated from their refugee parents.
“This was the week we crossed the line,” Mr. Truscott wrote. “Things are being done to children in our name that should shame us all. …It can happen here. It is happening.” Further:
“’[Children] were filthy dirty,’ said one of the lawyers, shocked by what he encountered at an obscure Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. ‘There was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered…Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once. This facility knew last week that we were coming. The government knew three weeks ago that we were coming.’
“This was the week that…Óscar Martínez Ramírez, a Salvadoran migrant and his 23-month-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River near Brownsville, Texas, trying to reach the United States. They lay side by side, face down in the muddy riverbank, our own tableau of innocent death alongside the photo of the dead Syrian boy lying in the surf on a Turkish beach…drowned while trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos.
“This was the week…the Department of Justice argued in a case before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the federal government, in providing so-called ‘safe and sanitary’ conditions for migrant children being detained, is not necessarily required to provide them with toothbrushes, soap, or even beds.
“This was the week that a ‘controversy’ continued over what to call facilities where the United States government is housing migrant children who have been separated from their parents in filthy, disgusting, unsafe and unhealthy conditions. …[Congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the detention facilities run by the Trump administration ‘concentration camps’ and was immediately attacked…”
At age 99, Ben Ferencz is the last living prosecutor of nazis on trial at Nuremberg in the aftermath of World War 2. In 1945, Mr. Ferencz, then 27, was assigned to handle the Eisnsatzgruppen Case, in which twenty-four officers of the Third Reich’s Schutzstaffel performed as a mobile death in murdering more than two million people. Half the slaughtered were Jews, a quarter million Romani, a half-million partisan fighters, and thousands of Slavs, physically disabled individuals, and homosexuals. Young Mr. Ferencz won convictions of all twenty-four nazis, thirteen of whom were sentenced to death.
As he explained in the recent documentary film “Prosecuting Evil,” the Eisnsatzgruppen Case (officially, United States v. Otto Ohlendorf, et al) was the “biggest mass murder trial in the history of the world.” In lawyerly terms, Ben Ferencz has “standing” to speak of criminal actions that bring about suffering of the innocent.
In an interview last August with Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the outgoing United Nations commissioner for human rights, Mr. Ferencz posed the question, “What could cause more great suffering than what [the Trump administration] did in the name of immigration law?” He charged Donald Trump with “crimes against humanity.”
Writing in the June 26 edition of “Jurist,” a legal news and research magazine, Professor Benjamin G. Davis of the University of Toledo College of Law in Ohio suggested a means of bringing Mr. Trump to account.
“We learn more every day about the depraved conditions in which these …children are being held under the [Trump] family separation policy,” Mr. Davis wrote. “We begin to appreciate the systemic, unnecessary suffering at the very heart of that policy. So we have the crime against humanity.”
Mr. Davis suggests that while the discrete term “crimes against humanity” is the purview of the International Court of Criminal Law, of which the United States is not a signatory, there may be “routes in U.S. domestic law in order to end the abomination of these concentration camps and put the perpetrators behind bars.”
And what does Donald Trump have to say for himself?
Only last April, during a photo-op at White House, the president characterized migrants the likes of Óscar Martínez Ramírez this way: “They are coming like it’s a picnic, like ‘let’s go to Disneyland.’”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag