Georgina Guzman, a paralegal for the Texas Civil Rights Project, was at a loss. She was trying to describe the demeanor of Border Patrol agents who escort people charged with “illegal entry.”
These agents take the detained people from buses to the federal courthouses, where they are mass-tried and convicted of “illegal entry” into the U.S. Guzman stumbled as she described the agents’ behavior: “Cold. . . like, it’s another day at the job. . . just dis-attached. . . just dry; no smile, no nothing. . . like robots.”
People and organizations across the world have been expressing torrents of verbal outrage at “Zero Tolerance” family separation. But at ground zero for this policy, those who witness it directly seem almost muffled as they attempt to describe the unnecessary cruelty of U.S. immigration policy.
Whether mocking distraught children, forcing parents into signing deportation papers, vandalizing humanitarian aid, or as Guzman described, verbally reprimanding detained people in chains for making noise as they sit waiting to be tried– this deportation force has demonstrated behavior that, although could easily qualify as “cruel and unusual,” even brutal, could possibly be summarized as evil, when you think of it.
How does one, or how should communities in the struggle for civil and human rights, think about these behaviors?
Let’s explore three ways of analyzing our current situation.
International jurisprudence owes the term ‘crimes against humanity’ to the Nuremberg trials (a term mobilized at recent rallies against BP), the results of which informed the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hannah Arendt’s work is therefore unavoidable when making sense of an increasingly dictatorial government, especially at a time when comparisons, however sloppy or sophisticated, with the Third Reich are often made. What does the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem have to tell humanity about its current situation, and what is seen today on the Southwest Border as part of a global struggle for refugee rights?
In addition, what does the legacy of colonialism reveal about modern-day oppression (i.e. deportation forces, militarized police)? And is there actually room in our collective vocabulary for the word “evil”?
Border Patrol and the banality of evil
Arendt is credited with giving the language of politics and war two now well-known phrases: “radical evil” (she borrowed it from Immanuel Kant) and “the banality of evil.” In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt grapples with the aftermath of two world wars, brought on by imperialism and totalitarian movements. These, Arendt argues, must end with a certain radical evil, so committed to violence that in the end, they self-implode; at great cost, of course.
Totalitarianism is often described in The Origins as “total domination” within and outside of “totalitarian” countries: total control of every aspect of government and (here’s the catch) civilian life. This condition, the German-Jewish exile to Manhattan concluded, is executed by “normal” bureaucrats, doing “evil” things—such is the banality of evil.
Arendt looked at detached bureaucrats, like Adolf Eichmann, who carried out the orders of the leader. She did her work in the 1950s and 1960s. But Bernardo Zacka, author of When the State Meets the Street, has more recently argued that Arendt’s analysis is of little use when trying to make sense of Border Patrol agents, who, in contrast to the likes of Eichmann and Himmler, directly intervene in the lives of those they affect— as when physically separating children from their parents.
By contrast, Adriel Trott, a former Rio Grande Valley resident and currently a philosophy professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, recently meditated on the question of what makes societies dehumanize the Other. She recalled the history of ‘meritocracy’ during the “final solution,” as was also laid out by Arendt in Eichmann. Trott compared it with the regeneration of merit-based immigration policy, presently taking form in the White House.
And perhaps most cogently, the Oxford Law faculty invoked Arendt’s dictum of “the right of all peoples to have rights,” as adumbrated in Judge Pinto De Albuquerque’s opinion in the European Court of Human Rights. He cited Arendt’s preface to The Origins in asserting the rights of refugees to seek asylum in every country. Authors, scholars, and judges today have found Arendt’s writing useful and imperishable.
I am not a social scientist, philosopher, or legal scholar. But I do work in the storytelling industry. Language is our business. As journalists, reporters, and writers, we are on guard against euphemism and obfuscation.
To read Eichmann is to access a treasure trove of newspeak. The reader meets examples throughout, but none so sinister as the “objective” and “technical” use of the word “solution” in answer to “the Jewish question,” a solution divided into three parts: “Expulsion,” “Concentration,” and “Final.”
What, then, is one to make of Trump’s use of “solution” to describe his deterrent weapon against “illegal immigration”— namely, family separation? If Eichmann’s plan is a guide, the first two phases of the “solution” have been “greatly” utilized by the admirer of Germany’s 1930s fascist leader, now “illegally” occupying the Oval Office.
Nowadays in the U.S., the torture of children is carried out with euphemism and propaganda (“zero-tolerance,” “it’s for the good of the children,” “their parents are criminals”).
Lastly, witnessing the subsumption of paramilitary forces, such as the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and ICE, turn into increasingly politicized operations for the executive branch, one too cannot help but think of the merging of S.S. forces into regular German Security, noted by Arendt in Eichmann as the moment when the regime became most openly criminal and proud of it.
The brutality of settler and colonial policing is still dominant and domestic force
Separations of children from their parents. Permanent detentions. Brutal prison conditions. All of these comprise a moral crisis, in the words of Noam Chomsky, on the Southwest Border, and are as American as colonialism and imperialism — from the genocide of the Indigenous populations in North America to the African slave trade, right on through Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, to say nothing of the “post-war” era.
Interestingly, similar police tactics, utilizing political dehumanization and detention presently exists in two settler, colonial states descended from the British Crown: Australia and the U.S.
Australia was colonized by the British in the late 18th century, when the area’s indigenous people, whom the colonizers called “aborigines,” were subjected to genocide.
Continued discrimination and forced family separations of indigenous populations for reasons of indoctrination and cultural erasure persisted well into the 20th century, resulting in a National Sorry Day in apology for “The Stolen Generation.”
As the Trump administration struggles to account for children separated under “Zero Tolerance,” is the U.S. on the verge of having its own stolen generation?
Anti-immigrant politicians claim that refugees who arrived starting in 2014 from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia will take needed jobs in Australia. They have their own ABF (Australian Border Force).
Australia also has immigration detention centers condemned for their living conditions by physicians and shut down by people detained who have also undertaken extreme measures to bring world attention to the conditions. Similarities between these events and those of the U.S. are telling.
Bringing the colonialism issue back to the Valley, Gloria Anzaldua notes in Borderlands, that “by the end of the nineteenth century, powerful landowners in Mexico, in partnership with U.S. colonizing companies, had dispossessed millions of Indians of their land.”
“Refugees in their own land,” was also how one Australian scholar put it, describing the situation of aboriginals in the Pacific Island, now part of the “Anglosphere.”
“Living in a no-man’s borderland,” Anzaldua writes, “caught between being treated as criminals and being able to eat, between resistance and deportation, the illegal refugees are some of the poorest and most exploited of any people in the U.S.”
The brutality perpetrated by the Texas Rangers, DPS, and Border Patrol–who, as Anzaldua recalled, would “hide out behind a McDonald’s in Brownsville [Border Patrol],” are a fact of life and history for the immigrant community in the Valley.
“This is her home this thin edge of barbwire.” Gloria Anzaldúa, The Homeland, Aztlán / El otro México
The surplus-value of evil
Finally, if simplicity can exist in theory, without being simplistic, an example is Christopher Hitchens’ theory of the surplus-value of evil.
In describing the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a government Trump praised during the campaign trail, the late journalist argued that dictatorial governments find unnecessary cruelty essential to repression. Hitchens explicated a “surplus-value” theory of evil:
“[M]any countries maintain secret police forces and inflict torture on those who disagree. And some countries inflict torture or murder at random, since the pedagogic effect on the population is even greater if there is no known way of avoiding the terror. Caprice, also, lends an element of relish to what might otherwise be the boring and routine task of repression. . . This eagerness to go the extra mile. . . probably requires an extra degree of condemnation.”
Once a parent and child have been detected and forcibly detained by the Border Patrol, they no longer have bodily autonomy, except for the parent’s “right” to sign deportation papers, often done, as mentioned at the beginning, coercively. They are under the custody of the state. They will be put in a freezing room with other parents and children.
How could anyone make this situation worse? Aim achieved, right? Not yet: Now detain and separate the children. Ok..how ‘bout now?
Alexis Bay, a summer law clerk for the TCRP, has seen Border Patrol agents and CBP agents go that extra mile.
The image and sounds of the defendants’ rattling chains, for example, left a mental mark on the first-year law student. “That was my second exposure to sit in front of a person who was being chained,” Bay said.
They described their first time conducting intakes at the federal courthouse in McAllen. “It was always really disturbing to look at another human being who is being chained at the hands, waist, and feet. That’s something I’ve not been able to get used to. I don’t think anybody really can.”
Once, Alexis witnessed something interesting. Walking into the courtroom, they saw private security guards and at least one CBP agent just outside the courtroom’s open door, and, for no reason, Bay could tell, rattling chains that lay on the floor.
They do not think it was done purposefully, “But at the bare minimum, there was a great insensitivity towards the fact that that noise and that visual [were] only making things more harrowing, more frightening.”
Although not all Border Patrol agents are brutal, cruel or evil (one might suppose), history nonetheless shines a light on the present. And action is everywhere today. International law and human rights attorneys and volunteers are mobilizing across the country to defend the rights of refugees. In the Rio Grande Valley, our community is confronting more and more the legacy of colonialism.
So, all that is left is the confidence and conviction to call what we see by its right name. The moral, as well as cognitive, clarity that results, may resolve the dissonance that results when describing cruelty and evil happening before us. Sometimes, there are just no other words.