Normalizing Atrocity

“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 deliberately infected 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.

Kenn Orphan   2019

3 thoughts on “Normalizing Atrocity

  1. Leah

    I don’t sleep anymore. You illiterate the inevitable and unnecessary oblivion beautifully. Truly. But I have to ask you, since you see our present moment as it is, you must have thoughts on what action to take? I don’t mean protests or policies. I mean for your kids or for your family. To keep them as secure as you can for as long as you can. Do you try to build a communal existence? Do you take your kids and flee abroad? If so, where?? Do you stay in the US and retreat as far into the center mountains as you can and try to become self sustainable? As a parent of young children at some point I have to yield the bigger fight and just fight for them. The picture you paint of the state of my country, it’s classes and it’s impact on the planet is acutely accurate. I am a single mother with three kids. We’ve been without permanent housing for over 2 years. The bottom of the ladder is the only place in the US you can get a clear view of it all. I applaud your brutally honest writing, but with that comes a responsibility to your reader, to give some raw suggestions. Otherwise you’re just setting us up for despair and nihilism. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kenn Orphan Post author

      Knowledge is the beginning of action, but not its end. None of the people affected in the nations I mentioned in this piece (and there are scores of examples) were any more knowledgeable than we are today. In fact, many were far more ignorant about what was about to unfold.
      To be sure, we cannot know how any of this will unfold. History is only a teacher, not an oracle or crystal ball. But we can glean wisdom from it that is invaluable to how we proceed.

      For Americans living on the margins I would advise taking inventory of their resources and options. I would try to relocate out of any of the southern states in the US. I would also advise people to understand how climate change and environmental devastation will likely affect certain locations. For example, if you are in Miami or any low lying coastal city, I would start a plan for relocation at least to a place that acknowledges climate change or has some plans for adaptation in place. If you are in Las Vegas or Phoenix, water shortages are in the future, so it is time to start looking elsewhere. If you are in the American west, you must consider the menace of year long wildfires. Expenses and social, educational, housing, health or financial programs and safety nets are important to research also. Not all states or regions are equal in this regard.

      But pay attention to the political climate of where you live. How are people organizing? Who are the threats (fascists, white supremacists, etc) and how big or influential are they? What communities are there that are supportive, resilient and cooperative? Make real connections with real people offline. Communities on social media won’t cut it when and if things get bad. Solidarity with like minded comrades will.

      Consider other nations as options by doing research or beginning documentation or learning a foreign language (the last one cannot be understated as countries often value immigrants who can speak the local language). But understand that this is a major process and not easy. If you are serious about it, you can relocate to another country. But make sure it is a place you will be content in.

      In any case, I cannot advise anyone definitively on how to proceed in the trouble times we see looming. But I can suggest that, as Joan Baez once said, “action is the antidote to despair.” So begin researching, exploring, and, most importantly, connecting in solidarity with like minded comrades. You may be surprised by how many there are right where you live now.



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