Perhaps you can commiserate. For the past few weeks I’ve felt an aching in my chest; an angst I cannot escape. The darkening skies of an ever besieged biosphere aside, the specter of rising fascism undoubtedly looms large now, and war, a global war, now seems inevitable. It’s true that the saber rattling has been going on for some time. And the bombs have never really stopped falling. The last leader of the American Empire dropped over 26,000 of them in his last year alone.
But then, last week, the current bloated tweeting emperor called forth his bombers into the sky and, at a moment’s notice, called them back. A war that would ignite a region already smoldering from decades of imperial assaults was halted in midair. But the effect of terror had been accomplished. Billions of people now hold their breath as he casually promises to obliterate millions of people if “anything” American is harmed. Is an unmanned drone worth millions of human lives? We may find out if the Empire thinks so.
And then there are the camps. Those camps on the southern border of the Empire. It is unfathomable for any person of conscience to ignore the horror unfolding there. It requires a forfeiture of one’s soul. Children screaming for their mothers, the mothers whose arms they were ruthlessly torn from. Clothing caked with mucus. Lying on cold, concrete floors, with foil sheets as blankets. Abandoned children mothering other abandoned children. Caged. Alone. Terrified. And the guards screaming at the children who didn’t follow their instructions. Who didn’t share the lice combs they were told to share. And the children who have been adopted out to other families, or who died of exposure and preventable diseases. Succumbing to dehydration in a harsh desert because people have been imprisoned by the Empire for leaving out water.
Queer people locked in solitary confinement, for being queer. Pregnant women shackled to beds as they give birth. And yet some liberals balk at the use of the words “concentration camps” for being too strong. History has words that describe those liberals too, and they aren’t flattering.
Far from homes ravaged by violence, these human beings seek refuge. Escaping a violence visited upon them from the same empire they now seek refuge within. And when they arrive, they are met with another kind of violence. A dehumanizing, organized terror. One which begins with being called animals, or rapists, or criminals. An infestation. Sound familiar? Chilling? It should be.
And yet many of us are still chided by conservatives and liberals alike for daring to bring up atrocities of the past. We dare not violate Godwin’s Law. That no go zone in internet chat rooms and social media sites that eschews comparisons of today’s crimes to that of Nazi Germany. But now even Godwin, the author of that meme, is having second thoughts. So with that rebuke jettisoned, my mind goes back to reading about respectable German families having picnics outside concentration camps in the 1930s. The slow churn of trains full of human cargo, stained by blood, vomit and fear, rumbling by them on fields of grass. The smoke of burning flesh punctuating the summer sky. And how those families knew. They knew. And yet they ate, and drank cold riesling, and sang familiar songs, as the fumes of death drifted by.
I often wonder what it took to develop that kind of callousness. I am wondering less and less these days. After all, these places didn’t start as death camps. “Arbeit macht frei.” Liberation was always promised. It was just not the kind anyone wanted. And steadily, with careful planning, an ideology of hate became a bureaucracy of death. The machinery of extermination that started with entire groups of people being labeled as “vermin.” A cancer. An infestation. Alien to those who supposedly belonged. And dehumanization led to mass deportation, which led to internment. And internment led to atrocity.
Atrocity is the product of apathy. The bastard child of a complacent public. It is a wickedness that builds within a society so insidiously that it becomes embedded in daily transactions and the language itself. And it often induces a kind of paralysis. A normalcy bias. So I have also been thinking a lot about a woman I met years ago when I worked in hospice. She survived the Holocaust, but she was haunted every single day by the memory of watching her father being thrown into an open fire in front of her. He was trying to protect his young daughter from the groping hands of the SS. But her role was to be that of a “comfort woman.” And for that they ripped her up inside with a broken bottle. “You’ll never have children now,” the SS guard laughed. And he was correct.
She wasn’t Jewish. She wasn’t political. She was a child. In fact, she was German, through and through. A devout Catholic. But she and her family weren’t spared. She saw her neighbors demonized, persecuted and dragged away one by one, family by family. Frozen as the tide of terror arose around them. Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists. But then they came for her family.
Decades have passed since that time and yet more camps have come and gone around the world. More open air prisons. More mass round ups and deportations. More death squads. More killing fields. Indonesia, Chile, Congo, Guatemala, Gaza, Syria, Yemen. And in each case well meaning, respectable people have watched the horror unfold. Watched their neighbors be bombed. Watched the death squads terrorize. Some have applauded it, some have even participated in it or brought picnics to the carnage like those German families decades ago.
To be sure, there are too many killing fields to count. Too many rotting corpses. But they must be counted. Each of them. Because each one of them count. And because again, fascism rises. Out of the ashes of mountains of bodies. It rises. And the camps are back too. And so are the attack dogs. And the barbed wire. And the guards. And they are all within the empire itself.
There is a signal we are given from the blood soaked pages of history. A Cassandra ignored now as in days past. The soft, warm loam of the earth eventually gives up her dead, and they speak to us. The most powerful empire the world has ever known is now global in scale. Its belligerent and suffocating tendrils reach everywhere. And it has become the most powerful menace to all who call this planet home. It courts our extinction via the wanton destruction of the biosphere and nuclear annihilation; and its sadistic disregard for today’s immigrant children on its home soil is the same it holds for the children in Iran, or North Korea, or for all children of the future for that matter. After all, it doesn’t think of any of them as its children to begin with, and it knows no other course to take. But you and I have no excuse. Now we know.