Happy Fourth of July: Is this really the America we want?

The American people face a historical reckoning. Do we stand up against the crimes committed in our name?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 4, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

US Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents take part in a safety drill in the Anapra area in Sunland Park, New Mexico, United States on January 31, 2019.  (Getty/Herika Martinez)
US Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents take part in a safety drill in the Anapra area in Sunland Park, New Mexico, United States on January 31, 2019. (Getty/Herika Martinez)

Language encourages violence. Language legitimates violence and makes it worse. Language can be a form of violence in itself.

Donald Trump instinctively understands those facts. This is why Donald Trump uses stochastic and scripted violence, to great effect, during his rallies, press conferences and interviews. Nonwhite immigrants are a special target of Trump's violent language.

As I explained in an earlier essay, "Trump's comparison of immigrants to snakes is eliminationist speech — a type of language that endorses genocide and other types of mass violence against a given group of people. It's speech that turns the dominant group against an out group, which by its very presence in the body politic is identified as a pollutant to be expunged and destroyed."

"Trump's people" are listening — very keenly.

A 39-year-old Border Patrol agent named Matthew Bowen was recently accused of striking a Guatemalan man with his vehicle near the U.S.-Mexico border, and then lying about what had happened to investigators. As Newsweek reports, Bowen had sent many racist text messages in the weeks and months before the incident:

Prosecutors Lori Price and Monica Ryan said that texts sent from Bowen's phone could provide a clear picture of the role the Border Patrol agent's apparent "disdain" for migrants possibly played in the incident.

Among the texts that the two prosecutors sought to have included as evidence were messages in which Bowen called migrants "disgusting subhuman s*** unworthy of being kindling for a fire."

In another exchange, dated December 18, 2017, roughly two weeks after the vehicle attack, an unidentified person asked Bowen: "Did you gas hiscorpse (sic) or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect."

Using a derogatory term for Guatemalan citizens, Bowen responded: "Guats are best made crispy with an olive oil from their native pais," with "pais" being the Spanish word for "country."

In another message, Bowen allegedly wrote: "PLEASE let us take the gloves off Trump!"

Robbing a person of their humanity removes any expectations of empathy, sympathy, respect or human rights. To call other human beings "logs" or "kindling" is a way of reducing them to the level of objects to be destroyed.  During World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese Army used identical language to describe the human beings against whom they committed unimaginable acts of barbarism and cruelty.

The words of one Border Patrol agent are not to be understood in isolation. His words and behavior reflect a much larger set of attitudes and values among Customs and Border Protection, ICE and similar agencies that have been further radicalized by the Trump administration. In total, this is a cultural problem and not an individual one.

A recent investigative report by ProPublica revealed the existence of a "secret" online group of active and former Border Patrol and other law enforcement agents whose 9,500 members (there are approximately 19,000 Border Patrol agents) use racist and nativist language to describe immigrants, migrants and refugees. The members of the “I’m 10-15” group also mock and celebrate the deaths of migrants and refugees.

Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.

In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”

Created in August 2016, the Facebook group is called “I’m 10-15” and boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country. (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “aliens in custody.”) The group described itself, in an online introduction, as a forum for “funny” and “serious” discussion about work with the patrol. “Remember you are never alone in this family,” the introduction said....

ProPublica reviewed several posts relating to a planned visit by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. 

Members of the Border Patrol Facebook group were not enthused about the tour, noting that Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from Queens, had compared Border Patrol facilities to Nazi concentration camps. ...

One member encouraged Border Patrol agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches.” Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, “Fuck the hoes.” “There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets,” posted a third member.

Perhaps the most disturbing posts target Ocasio-Cortez. One includes a photo illustration of her engaged in oral sex at an immigrant detention center. Text accompanying the image reads, “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC.”

Another is a photo illustration of a smiling President Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch. The agent who posted the image commented: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won.”

Members of “I’m 10-15” group are aware of their collective guilt. Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the congressional delegation discovered filthy prison cells, women and children told to drink from toilets, lack of proper food, overcrowding and other deplorable conditions. 

Conditions are bad enough that Border Patrol guards at an El Paso, Texas border center armed themselves in preparation for what they believed to be an inevitable uprising by the detainees.

Empowered by Trump's contempt for the rule of law, Border Patrol officers were reportedly threatening and contemptuous toward Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the congressional delegation who were investigating the living conditions at several detention centers in Texas on Monday.

The Border Patrol, ICE, and Trump's other enforcers have a culture of racist, nativist and sexist violence that works through institutions. These are the "ice boxes" and "dog pounds" used to abuse and torture migrants and refugees in the name of "deterrence."

Trump's concentration camps and their associated facilities are expansive. By some estimates there are hundreds of camps, prisons, detention centers and other facilities being used by Trump's regime to imprison tens of thousands of migrants and refugees across the United States. The Trump regime's next step in its campaign of terror against that community is to use military bases as sites for concentration camps. As civil rights attorneys and other watchdogs have warned, this means there will be even less civilian oversight and therefore even fewer protections for the human rights of the migrants and refugees imprisoned on military bases.

The purpose of Trump's war on nonwhite migrants and refugees is to reinforce the boundaries of community around "whiteness" and "American-ness" and those deemed ineligible and disqualified from it, the "us" and "the them," what types of people and bodies have value and which do not. Ultimately, the status of the Other is not natural. It is a social construct.

In his book "Spaces of Disappearance" Jordan Carver explains how power relationships were created in America's post 9/11 "black sites," locations where torture and other types of abuse against "terrorists" were the norm — if not official policy. Carver's observation is eerily appropriate if applied to Trump's concentrations camp system some 10 years later:

The title of this book is a reversal of Hannah Arendt's conception of "the space of appearance." For Arendt, the space of appearance was a space where people would interact, a space of "speech and action," and a space where people would appear together and perform civic duties. The space of appearance, in short, is a space where politics can be enacted, where "the public realm can be organized"...

In reverse Arendt's formulation of political space, the black sites are revealed as spaces beyond politics, beyond civic life, and beyond humanity. ... The secret prisons proved to be spaces designed to contain subjects without speech, restrained in action, and stripped of humanity. They were cast outside their own politics and hidden from ours.

But what is a racial authoritarian leader such as Donald Trump without a throng of followers?

In one of the many entries in the "Dispatches from Trumplandia" subgenre of reporting, CNN spoke with Trump voters last year about his policy of intentionally breaking up the families of migrants and refugees. One man explained why he supported the policy:

He should enforce the laws like he's doing, and our Congress needs to abide by the laws and follow the laws and enforce the laws. Not go against our President. I blame it on the parents for letting it happen because they bring them up and know they can't get across there legally.

Another Trump supporter, a woman, had this to say:

I think people need to stop constantly bringing up the poor children, the poor children. The parents are the problems. They're the ones coming in illegally, Quit trying to make us feel teary-eyed for the children. Yes, I love children a great deal, but to me, it's up to the parents to do things rightfully and legally.

Another male Trump supporter said:

Here's how I feel about it: When I was a kid, 16 years old, I got fined for swimming in a lake 'cause I didn't follow the rules," he said. "These people that we have coming across the border illegally are breaking the rules. I have no feelings for them at all.

Cruelty and evil have long-been rationalized through appeals to the law. White-on-black chattel slavery was "legal." Interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II was "legal." The Holocaust was also "legal."

Trump's racism, nativism and cruelty are strategic: They are a way of giving his voters what they want. For that reason and many others there are no good people who still support Donald Trump.

There is an online meme which holds, "If you've wondered what you would've done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement ... you're doing it now." This is wisdom and warning.

Holocaust survivor, philosopher, human rights activist and scholar Primo Levi's words also inform — and should terrify and frighten — all people of conscience in the Age of Trump.

For this reason, it is the duty of everyone to meditate on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that Hitler and Mussolini, when they spoke in public, were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were “charismatic leaders”; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the credibility or the soundness of the things they said, but from the suggestive way in which they said them. And we must remember that their faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

Trumpism is a crucible, a test for the American people's character and morality. This moral reckoning must take place on a massive scale. However, decisions and responsibility must be faced by individuals as well.

To be silent or passive is to be complicit with the Trump regime's crimes against humanity. Tacit consent is not a defense. It is an indictment. The American people must say, "Not in my name!" But they must also accompany those words with direct action to stop the crimes they claim to find so vile.

The American people must make a moral accounting of themselves in the age of Trump, and must stand against the many acts of cruelty his regime is committing in their name.

Will history's verdict vindicate us or condemn us?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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