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Normalizing Atrocity

Photograph Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
– Public Domain

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
― Voltaire

This week President Trump vowed mass arrests and the removal of “millions of illegal aliens” by early next week. These proclamations have become increasingly normalized in an age where his absurdities are spouted daily, but this is the kind of rhetoric which often precedes atrocity. “Mass arrests” of millions of people is the kind of language that communicates the naked aggression of the state against the “other.” It permits a sweeping dehumanization of entire groups. That they are non-violent or paying taxes is of no consequence. They are “aliens” who must be “removed,” extracted from the so-called “legal” population by any means. In the last 20 years this has generally meant people of color, especially those with non-Anglo surnames. Yet, in response to this latest threat I saw a comment from one American liberal which read “meh, the logistics of doing something like this are enormous.” In other words, “it can’t happen here.” History begs to differ.

Thousands of socialists and leftists were marched into stadiums in Chile in the 1970s and gunned down, tortured, or disappeared in a country with a much smaller military than the US. Between 1965 and 1966, at least a million communists, or those believed to be communists, were hunted down and brutally murdered in Indonesia by rightwing death squads and the police. And millions of Jews, Roma, communists, homosexuals and the disabled were persecuted, rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the 1930s and 40s in Germany and Nazi occupied countries, where most perished at a time when many ordinary people thought “the logistics” of doing something like that were too “enormous” to be fathomed, much less carried out. And each atrocity was preceded by the rise of a pernicious fascism and the language of dehumanization by leaders.

The notion that atrocity “can’t happen here” is soundly refuted by the fact that it has happened here. And countless times. The US, a nation founded upon organized ethnic cleansing and genocide of the native population, and the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans, has also been home to more recent mass atrocities. Thousands of black and brown men and some women were lynched over the early part of the 20th century. Events organized and sanctioned by authorities, police and politicians, where popcorn, postcards and body parts were sold as souvenirs to the ghoulish onlookers. Thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in internment camps in the desert during WW2 for the sake of “national security.”

Indeed, over the 20th century the US military, energy, and intelligence agencies have been at the forefront of atrocity, conducting medical, chemical and radiation experiments on millions of unsuspecting people. Whether it was feeding radioactive food to mentally disabled children and conscientious objectors, or irradiating pregnant women, infants or prisoners, or releasing radioactive chemicals over US and Canadian cities, the US establishment has demonstrated it is quite at home in administering atrocity and then burying it all until years later.

And this is not counting the non-Americans in the Marshall Islands where the US tested its nuclear bombs. Or in Guatemala where scores were injected with syphilis as in Tuskegee, where American black men were the victims. Or the millions of deaths caused by American imperialistic wars which carpet bombed cities and villages, used napalm and Agent Orange or, more recently, the use of burning white phosphorous and cancer causing depleted uranium.  Entire regions have been devastated, scores slaughtered from American forays. But one thing has been consistent, the vast majority of the victims of American atrocities have been women, the poor, and people of color.

So to some, alarm at Trump’s threat may seem hyperbolic. Indeed, there may not be any nascent mass atrocity unfolding here at this time. Others might say he is merely removing people who are in the US illegally, or that it could simply be more distraction, a nod to his xenophobic base. And the mass deportation of immigrants is indeed nothing new with any prior administration either. Obama, the notorious drone bombing president, whistleblower attacking, “deporter in chief,” while not issuing sweeping proclamations about his intended pogroms, certainly paved the way for everything we see now.

But the language Trump uses is not insignificant. Not at all. He is signaling his willingness for carrying out massive actions and purges in society. He uses fear effectively against the most vulnerable and powerless. And even a short historical account of the American ruling establishment and its institutions reveals that it has the capacity to participate and administer the most heinous crimes against humanity that have ever been conceived. ICE is more than happy to follow his dictates, and establishment Democrats, the so-called “resistance,” have indicated time and time again that they will unite with Republicans in defending the most odious of American policies.

One thing history has proven is that mass atrocity can be committed with few people, with great efficiency at a moment’s notice, little technology, and with shocking approval or the complacence of the majority of ordinary people. But it must first be normalized. To be sure, if a people can tolerate dehumanizing language of entire groups by its leader, and the utterly sadistic policy of ripping children from the arms of their parents and putting them in cages, or pregnant women being shackled to beds, or the torture of non-violent LGBTQ and mentally ill migrants via solitary confinement for days, or militias working in tandem with government agencies to round up unarmed migrants, or a government prosecuting those who provide water and shelter to other human beings in desperate need, it is certainly capable of tolerating, or even applauding, even worse monstrous depravity. And without a doubt, we are only one absurd tweet away from that potential nightmare.

More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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