The Decency of Child Removal

The Trump regime’s policy of taking away the children of “illegal immigrants” and locking them in cages, warehouses and “tent cities” is a monstrosity even by the standards of criminality-in-governance to which we have become accustomed over the past year and a half. The children include breastfeeding babies, toddlers, the blind and the terrified. They have no idea where their parents are or whether they will see them again. Parents have been thrust into a parallel ignorance of their children’s whereabouts; at least one parent has committed suicide. We have been given multiple and incoherent explanations and justifications: that this policy is “punishment” for people who have committed a crime by entering the country illegally, that it will deter those contemplating illegal entry, that it will pressure the Democratic Party into making a “deal” with Trump that presumably includes funding his wall, that this is a sign of “toughness” or “zero tolerance” in the pursuit of the national interest, that the regime is merely enforcing a settlement reached by the Clinton administration in 1997 and a law passed by the Bush administration in 2008. None of that disguises the basic reality of the torture of children and their parents. Even without rehashing old arguments about the banality of evil, we can see that this evil is recognizably banal, perpetrated by “working people” who are simply “doing their jobs.” The concept of “working people,” in America as in Germany in the 1930s, is itself a nugget of evil banality, closely aligned with a vision of decency centered on conformity and exclusion.

If we go beyond the banality and ask where it is coming from, we can identify a crisis of aesthetics and history. This is not the first time that the US government (or any other government) has tormented children. We can point to the accelerated deportations initiated by the Obama administration, the devastating effects on Iraqi children of the Clinton-Albright sanctions, and the bombing of civilians in a state of war that is chronic rather than episodic. Those crimes cannot be detached from the current horror of the deliberate targeting of families, and they can be only partially differentiated as “collateral damage,” since collateral damage is only a partial disavowal of intent. It is also easy to see the wider range of historical precedents, from the taking of Native American children and the breakup through sale of slave families, to instances that do not involve children directly, such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. We can see the continuity in the deployment of rhetoric such as “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance,” which have become not only politically advantageous but also self-evidently desirable: the discourse of common sense. When this is common sense, it becomes possible for otherwise reasonable and decent people to believe that the University of California reserves two-thirds of its funded admissions for the children of illegal immigrants. At that point, what Trump does to children and their parents becomes forgivable. These developments are all national crimes, in the sense that they are part of the fabric of our nationhood. It is not entirely honest to say, as some critics of Trump have been saying out of a sincerely outraged decency, that child-removal is un-American, or “This is not who we are.”

All the same, some aspects of the current atrocity are unprecedented. Trump is a uniquely horrifying phenomenon in American history, and not simply because his regime is a political calamity that will leave a legacy of damage. It, and he, inspire in critics a visceral revulsion akin to the revulsion that Idi Amin and Caligula once inspired with their rumors of cannibalism, bestiality and incest. The rumors may or may not have been literally true, but their source is real enough. It is the revulsion that comes from encountering the human animal in its grossest form, composed entirely of fleshy appetites and impulses: the mindless, soulless, shameless lunging for food, sex, instant gratification and dominance that one accepts in pigs and tolerates in children, but recoils from when it appears in human adults. It is repulsive not simply because of what it is, but also because of what it is not, for this pathological excess of urges that come from the gut is also the total absence of empathy, reason and reflection. These are people who cannot even fake an apology, let alone repent. When dealing with those who supposedly defecate in toilets of gold even as they order that frightened toddlers be held by the state but not held by humans, the principle of “appealing to the humanity of the evil-doer” that one associates with Gandhi or Jesus breaks down, leaving us with a bare cupboard of countermeasures. Revulsion is all we have to begin with.

Under the circumstances, we must recognize first of all the broad complicity of our society, including its “decent” actors and elements, in vicious and often illegal practices that have not been confronted and punished. Obama did not punish the torturers from the Bush administration, Nixon placed Lieutenant Calley in comfortable house arrest, Ford pardoned Nixon, and Trump has already turned the presidential pardon into an instrument of witness tampering. The failures to confront and punish have preserved in American governance a bipartisan zone of extra-legality that is not just useful to the powerful but constitutive of power itself. Within the state and civil society, a tacit consensus has emerged that this extra-legality is itself legitimate and governance must transcend legality: authority cannot be limited by law, including not only international law (which is blocked by national sovereignty), but also the law of the land in question. Since the state supposedly acts in the name of the people, the patriotic citizen can and must accept that legality is not necessary for legitimacy, which can come instead from the transferred will – i.e., the identity expressed in the community of the nation-state – of the patriot, who can be either actively supportive or passively tolerant of government action. That is, obviously, an inherently fascist principle. One does not need a “fascist state” to confirm its operation, but its existence makes it easier for the state to accommodate fascism.

In freeing governance and legitimacy from legality, a basic liberal principle has been suspended and its associated institutions corroded, the suspension hidden and the corrosion justified by the expectation that decent people can be counted on to do the decent thing without the need for legal consequences. Thus, the Bush-Cheney torturers could be forgiven as fundamentally decent “working people” who would not do it again, since a decent leadership would not tell them to do it again. But when political leadership is reliant on the presumption that legality does not fully apply to governance, and that government must keep in reserve (if not in active deployment) the power to act without restraint, decency becomes quite compatible with conduct that might otherwise be illegal and punishable. Not only does the temptation to exceed the law become irresistible, the law itself becomes inapplicable; it withers away, leaving behind a trace or shell. The shell is not without its uses, but the utility is the hollowness itself. For instance, the 1997 and 2008 laws that the Trump regime has used to justify its recent actions do not, in fact, require border authorities to separate children from their parents. Citing them is an obfuscation and a ritual of legitimacy, underlining the useful emptiness of law in governance.

We must recognize, second, that our current predicament is not a problem of universal corruption, in which one set of leaders and followers are as malevolent as another. Obama, Clinton and Ford were all recognizably “decent” politicians. That decency was not fake or meaningless: it meant, for instance, that they would not have ordered the kidnapping of children, or even the torture of adults. They were empathetic, capable of feeling remorse for the harm they did more or less accidentally. The same understanding of decency, however, also allowed them to tolerate kidnapping, torture and drone attacks as behavior that can be accommodated within the extralegal space of governance, to bury the photographs from Abu Ghraib, to refuse to see (and even more pertinently, to show, because that would bring legality into play) what they would not themselves have done while declining to strengthen the institutions that might have prevented Trump from doing what is so indecent that it can only be called obscene.

We cannot, in other words, count on decency to prevent indecency, or to keep the truly pathological from abusing of the machinery of government. It is essential that we see the Trump phenomenon not only as a freakish malignancy, but also as the consequence of a reactionary decency that we have already normalized, and that enables forms of racism, fascism and assorted cruelty that we have already woven into our sense of who and what we are as a political community. It must, in the longer term, be uprooted or at least confronted if this is not to happen again. It is not a coincidence that “zero tolerance” is the signature phrase of this evil.

Finally, it is useful to recall what the author of the notion of the banality of evil wrote about forgiveness. In the follow-up to her work on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described forgiveness as a central aspect of freedom: it is, she suggested, an act that disrupts the causality of offense and retaliation (karma, a Hindu might say), and thus makes human initiative in history possible. It is an elegant argument, but it makes sense only in a context where the offender is potentially penitent and forgiveness is accompanied by systemic corrections, and I do not mean the feel-good pablum of si se puede chants. It has been possible to forgive Germans for their crimes of decency because the Nazi leadership was punished, and because the children of the followers went beyond decency and became, very substantially, a different kind of political community. Until the current American regime is recognized and treated as what they are – which is a collection of criminals – and concrete steps are taken to make it legally impossible to get away with what they have done, talk of forgiveness, accommodation, compromise, civility or decency would be fundamentally indecent.

June 19, 2018

Murder and Memory

In a lodge outside Namib-Naukluft National Park, I chatted with the Herero bartender about tribes, politics and mass murder in Namibia. She was surprised (and probably amused) by my interest, and gave me a free beer. Later that day, I saw her serving dinner to a table full of German men: solid, middle-aged, Middle European types on a group Urlaub. No one looked awkward or apologetic, and nobody mentioned genocide. It was an ordinary transaction between a waitress and diners, or rather between a local and tourists in a Third World country, and it was the ordinariness that made me recoil, because it represented two distinct cultures of forgetfulness: one of the community of killers, and another of the killed.

In the first years of the twentieth century, in what is now Namibia, German forces killed about a hundred thousand Herero and Nama people on the basis of ethnicity. Lothar von Trotha, the senior commander in the colony, made a decision to exterminate the tribes, which had risen in rebellion against the inescapable curtailment of their political autonomy and territory, the rampant use of slave labor by the colonial regime, and the growing pressure of white settlement. With the support of the government in Berlin, von Trotha’s troops shot and hanged the males from teenagers up, shot some of the women and younger children as well, chased the rest into the desert, and prevented them from accessing the water holes. Most of those who survived the bullets died of hunger and thirst. Von Trotha’s orders regarding the shooting of women and children were ambiguous: on the one hand, he worried that such shootings would injure ‘the good reputation of the German soldier’ (a notion that had not yet acquired its heavy coat of irony), and gallantly suggested that firing over their heads might suffice to frighten them to death. On the other, he was clear about his goal: he was engaged in a ‘race war,’ and ‘I shall spare neither women nor children.’ With men and boys he was even clearer: ‘All will be shot.’

Ethnic extermination is almost never complete, however, partly because of the slippery nature of ethnicity, and partly because bodies consigned to death by the racist state have uses even when alive. While the majority of the Herero and Nama died, others ended up in the concentration camp on Shark Island, where they were subjected to ‘scientific’ experiments that often killed them. Their heads were then shipped to German universities for study and display. Some survivors were relatively fortunate, managing to cross the desert to the relative safety of British-controlled territory.

The murder of the Herero and Nama has entered the history of modern genocide somewhat retrospectively: it has become common to see it as a precursor of the Holocaust, i.e., an earlier sign of the genocidal inclinations of the German state, and an experiment that produced lessons that would be put to a larger use in the 1940s. This reading is not incorrect, but it is nevertheless limited and misleading, because it gives the Namibian episode a pioneering status that disconnects it from the wider history of whiteness. The extermination of indigenous populations already had a long pedigree in settler colonialism, the indiscriminate murder of racially marked civilians was, likewise, a commonplace of colonial counterinsurgency, and concentration camps had already entered the lexicon of war and population-management in southern Africa. Rituals of mutilation and body-snatching had been part and parcel of the colonialism of ‘pacification’ and would remain so through the Vietnam War, and the scientific-exhibitionist allure of the bodies of the undead – established in southern Africa in the Saartjie Baartman exhibitions a century before the taking of Namibian heads – would continue through the Tuskeegee experiments with syphilis.

The genocide of the Herero and Nama was, in that sense, an ordinary affair. It might be argued that its only pioneering feature was the level of control exercised by a centrally directed metropolitan state. Even that was, in some respects, a sign of weakness: German colonists in Southwest Africa were too few, and their colonial project too underdeveloped discursively and institutionally, to achieve without direct state intervention what Afrikaner and Anglo-identified settlers had achieved semi-autonomously (but rarely without the backing of troops) in South Africa, Australia and America. Bypassing militias and mobs, imperial Germany resorted immediately and exclusively to the military to clear its colonial space. It was, one might say, more efficient. Also, in the sense that it established terror as both a ubiquitous administrative modality and a monopoly of the state, it was a closer ancestor of totalitarianism than other, more conventionally genocidal, settler colonial societies. Von Trotha’s exercise in mass murder was thus radical as well as ordinary: generically white, but not disconnected from the specific atrocities of the post-1941 Third Reich.

When it comes to the remembrance of mass murder, however, the Namibian tribes and the victims of the Holocaust occupy very different historical niches. As a brown man, I winced at the sight of the Herero woman bringing the German tourists their dinner, visited involuntarily by the shadow of the radical within the ordinary. But I may not have recoiled similarly from the sight of Germans being served by a Jewish woman in a New York restaurant, even if the ethnic identities were reliably evident to all parties. Since 1945, Germans, Jews and ‘the West’ have had a conversation about the Holocaust in particular, about anti-Semitism generally, and even more generally about civilized codes of racism and murder. This conversation has become a foundation of a revised West. The new West is signified not only by a penitent and anti-militarist German nationhood, and an elaborate culture of European introspection, acknowledgment and apology epitomized in a vast body of literature, art, scholarship, memorial infrastructure, common sense, and language itself, but also policies of reparation and compensation. Most importantly, it is marked by a consensus about the reality of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization,’ which has become the publicly admissible code for ‘whiteness.’ In other words, the hypothetical encounter between the waitress and the tourist in New York is structured around a profound historical reckoning, and a major revision of the boundaries of identity on the part of the genocidal community: an erstwhile Other is now normatively part of the Self. This accommodation is the most fundamental reparation for the Holocaust. The waitress and the tourist are both aware of it, as is an eavesdropping ‘third party,’ who knows better than to be disturbed by an encounter of insiders.

In the case of the Herero and Nama, none of that reckoning and revision has occurred. The post-Holocaust German state belatedly acknowledged the genocide, issued an apology and returned the severed heads, but it was a diplomatic gesture, unattached either to reparations or to a wider culture of acknowledgment and self-transformation. While it is possible that individual Germans ‘know about’ von Trotha’s exploits, that knowledge is not backed up by a repertoire of films, novels and essays that constitutes national culture, let alone civilization. There is no Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll of the Herero genocide. Namibia was done somewhere else, by people who can be disavowed as belonging to a different time and hence a different nation, and to people who are ultimately of limited relevance to being German or European. Even Hannah Arendt, the most brilliant philosopher of ‘western civilization’ after the Holocaust, and who famously made the connection between colonialism in Africa and totalitarianism in Europe, took no notice: there is hardly a word about Namibia in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s silence was entirely consistent with the limits of her critique of racism and fascism: post-war Europe – which remained the locus of a salvaged liberalism – could include within its civilizational ambit some, but not all, of its victims. Thus, even in the most generous circumstances, there could be sympathy but not identification. It might be argued, further, that Arendt’s eagerness to situate the roots of totalitarianism in South Africa and Rhodesia rather than Namibia was compatible with the post-war German embrace of a dispersed European collective, making it easier for Germans to relegate certain episodes from the national past to a slippery, transnational legacy. The weakening of nationalism, ironically, also weakened the ethical imperative of ownership.

There was, consequently, no imperative to remember Namibia. Nor was there a discursive product like ‘Never again,’ which is ambiguous to begin with: it can mean either ‘never again to us,’ or ‘never again to anybody,’ and the two meanings undergird very different types of memory-politics. Europe – which, like whiteness in general, retains its nationally-identified kernels but also loses them forgetfully in the vagueness of a fragmented past – has, after all, been remarkably efficient at forgetting colonialism, not in the sense that it does not acknowledge it, but in that it can be dealt with dishonestly and desultorily, or, all too often, with nostalgia and narcissism. The British East India Company’s famine of 1770 may have killed ten million people, and the 1943 redux another four million, but these catastrophes have left no imprint upon either ‘western civilization’ or ‘Britishness.’ Located entirely outside Europe, colonial crimes require no adjustments of identity or boundary. Germans in Namibia can thus segue effortlessly from seeing the Herero as colonial vermin to seeing them as servers in exotic tourist space – a maneuver that is not possible with Jews or Russians (although it may be possible with the Roma and Sinti).

The connections between memory and responsibility are quite different when it comes to Namibians themselves. The Herero waitress knew about the mass killings, but only in very general terms. She gave no indication that the knowledge informed her identity – especially her sense of her political responsibility – in the way that awareness of the Holocaust is a part of Jewishness. In the museums of Windhoek, we find some memorialization of the events of 1904-1907, but once again, it is quite different from the European – or the aboriginal – template of remembering mass murder, in which genocide itself is a privileged category, producing ethnicity and undergirding the justification for either statehood or a particular claim upon the state. It is tempting to read that difference as a form of underdevelopment: as the failure of Namibians (and not just waitresses) to fully grasp the power of the discourse of genocide and its associated modes of self-representation. That grasp, however, is enabled by particular political configurations: the state acting in the name of the remorseful but secure killer, the victim claiming reparation, or the outsider-turned-insider.

All of those configurations are visible in the (highly contested) importance that memorializing genocide has taken on in settler-colonial societies since the 1960s, where indigenous people have found in the memory not only the symbols of their present-day political marginality, but the substance of community. (American Indians and Australian Aborigines are the most obvious examples.) It must be kept in mind, however, that ‘native,’ ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ are not automatically interchangeable terms. The latter two acquire meaning primarily in the context of settler colonialism accompanied by the near-eradication of a particular ‘native’ category, the residue of which becomes ‘aboriginal,’ defined against the numerical, political and cultural dominance of the settler-ethnicity. In Namibia, neither the Herero nor the Nama – whose populations have rebounded – are aborigines. The Nama in particular, with their origins in the Dutch, San and Malay racial stew of the Cape region, are a relatively new ethnicity. They are, on the one hand, members of a large indigenous majority that is in control of the state. On the other hand, they are minorities within the indigenous population. They are politically weaker than a relatively large ‘tribe’ like the Ovambo (who dominated the organized struggle against South African rule and have a greater presence in the political establishment), but they are not subject to the discourse of imminent eradication that marks the aboriginal condition, relative to either blacks or whites. The roughly seven percent of the population that is white/settler includes German-speakers, but Afrikaans-speakers predominate, and its visible roots are in the long occupation of the country by the white-supremacist South African regime that displaced the Germans in 1915. They do not, as such, represent the genocidal element. They are better educated and wealthier than most Namibians, but the political reins and considerable wealth lie in the hands of a new, post-occupation black elite. The settlers, in other words, are not powerful enough to produce aboriginality among the indigenous. They were not powerful enough in 1904 either; it took the military resources of the German state to produce, through genocide, a temporary aboriginality in the Herero and Nama.

The sites in Windhoek that memorialize the violence of Namibia’s colonial past are the Independence Memorial Museum (known to local guides as ‘the coffee maker,’ due to its odd architecture), and Heroes’ Acre, the sprawling complex to the south of the city. At each place, and the former in particular, the genocide of 1904-07 is absorbed into standard narratives and iconographies of wars of national liberation, i.e., rendered not as victimhood but as heroism. At the Independence Memorial Museum, images of German soldiers and the victims of von Trotha’s ‘extermination order’ are situated amidst Soviet rocket launchers and South African armored vehicles from the liberation war of the 1980s, and old photographs of hanged Herero are placed near new friezes that depict a tormented but defiant Namibian nation. Sam Nujoma, the SWAPO leader who became the first president of independent Namibia (and whose statue stands Moses-like on the steps of the museum), is highlighted as the direct legatee of Herero chief Hosea Kutako (after whom Windhoek’s airport is named), and also as a friend and partner of Castro and Mandela. At Heroes’ Acre, the trajectory is even less subtle: at the top of a hill studded with the names of dead nationalists and allies, we find a frieze in which colonial mass murder is only the starting point in an increasingly mechanized and triumphant struggle. There is, throughout, an absence of the sentimentality that marks the iconography of individual suffering, such as Steven Spielberg's notorious girl-in-the-red-coat. There is no appeal to the psychologized personhood that is a hallmark of the modern West, and that, in its genocide-remembering manifestation, undergirds a subjectivity (and indeed, ethnicity) defined by trauma and entitled to various kinds of ‘post-traumatic’ political conduct. There is, instead, a tendency to lapse into the crude rhetoric of national glory that marks the self-representation of a ‘Third World country’: the over-investment of identity in the state to compensate for the weakness of civil society, and a parallel investment in the most powerful instruments of violence available in the present to compensate for the weaknesses and humiliations perceived in the past. (It is fitting, although ironic, that a giant Iron Cross sits at the base of Heroes' Acre.) Emphasizing genocide without the surrounding images of fighters and clenched fists would be to underline that weakness: the sense of shame that many Jews felt about ‘being led to the slaughter,’ which tightened their embrace of a state.

The memorialization of genocide in Namibia is thus somewhat crowded, i.e., without a privileged space of its own. It has lacked a constituency that might create that space, because the Herero and Nama have been neither the dominant groups within Namibian nationalism, nor existentially marginal within that nation. In a relatively poor society, the development of space in which the past is remembered is necessarily dependent upon state patronage. For the Namibian state that has inherited a history of genocide, memory-making has been eclipsed by other agendas, including especially the need to ‘nation-build’ across tribal identities, within which focusing on the victimhood of particular tribes would not only threaten the narrative of national unity, but also challenge the unacknowledged hierarchies within that nationhood. This is not necessarily a failure, any more than absence of Indian memorials to the dead of 1770 should be a matter of regret. The urge to remember 'what they did to us' is a second-rate sentiment (one that is literally sentimental) compared to the imperative of recalling what 'we' have done or are capable of doing to 'others.' Indeed, there is something salutary about the ‘low-key’ way in which Namibian nationalism has structured the memory of genocide, using it as a historical bridge to other victims and adversaries of colonialism, rather than a fetish of exceptional victimhood that calls for exceptional measures in the pursuit of reparation or deterrence (which is essentially the marriage of ethno-nationalist ‘Never again’ discourse with state power). As a source of justice, memorializing genocide is more necessary for the murderers than for the murdered. The rest is therapy.

Friezes at Heroes' Acre, The Iron Cross at Heroes' Acre, the Coffee Machine, Sam Nujoma on the steps of the National Independence Museum.

January 3, 2018