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