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Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, Requiem for a Tragedy

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

In the days before Donad Trump "caved" and issued an executive order (which he previously claimed he couldn't do) at least theoretically ending the forced separation of parents and children at the border, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said of the policy, "This is not who we are and it must end now." Former Vice President Joe Biden agreed. "This is not who we are," he insisted. "America is better than this." More than 20 state attorneys general called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the same forced separation policy, writing, "This is not who we are as a country, and our coalition of attorneys general will continue to act to protect the people we serve and the rule of law." Michigan Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee issued a similar statement, saying in part, "It makes me sick to my stomach seeing children being torn away from their parents and being detained in cages. This is not who we are as a country." Illinois candidate for attorney general, Kwame Raoul, the son of Haitian immigrants, responded to audio of children inside a detention facility this way: "This is almost too painful for me as a father to bear, but we can't look away. We have a responsibility to stand up and declare firmly: This is wrong. This is not who we are, and it must stop." At a protest in San Antonio, Texas, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro said, "This is not who we are as Americans." In an interview on a local Fox morning show, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo similarly said, "Who wants to treat people like this? We're better than this. This is not who we are. And it is that simple."

This is not who we are: it was a mantra, repeated endlessly by those who, in these last weeks, opposed the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" and forced-separation border policies. And it seems like such an obvious, on-target point to make. But perhaps it's worth stopping for a second and asking whether another possibility exists in Donald Trump's America. Perhaps this is who we are, or at least, to be a little more accurate, who we are becoming. TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of The Least Worst Place: Guanta'namo's First 100 Days, raises just that possibility. She points out that an American experiment in creating a Bermuda Triangle of injustice at a base in Cuba beyond the reach of American courts (and at various CIA "black sites" across the planet, as well as in U.S.-controlled prisons like Iraq's Abu Ghraib) in the years of George W. Bush's presidency only recently came home to roost along our southern border. If you are what you continue to do, then perhaps this is indeed just who we are becoming. Tom

A Children's Gitmo on the Border
Heartless America's Latest Nightmare
By Karen J. Greenberg

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By the time Donald J. Trump threw in the towel, who among us hadn't seen or heard the chilling videos in which U.S. border officials shamelessly grabbed uncomprehending children and toddlers from their pleading mothers and fathers? Some were told they were being taken to bathe or shower by people with little sense of the resonances of history. They were, of course, creating scenes that couldn't help but bring to mind those moments when Jews, brought to Nazi concentration camps, were told that they were being sent to take "showers," only to be murdered en masse in the gas chambers. Some of those children didn't even realize that they had missed the chance to say goodbye to their mothers or fathers. Those weeping toddlers, breast-deprived infants, and distressed teens were just the most recent signs of the Trump administration's war against decency, compassion, and justice.

Because the victims were children, however, it was easy to ignore one reality: new as all this may have seemed, it actually wasn't. Dehumanized, traumatized, and scared, those children -- their predicament -- shocked many Americans who insisted, along with former First Lady Laura Bush, that this was truly un-American. As she wrote in the Washington Post:

"Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents -- and to stop separating parents and children in the first place."

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Her essay essentially asked one question: Who have we become? Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, tweeting out a picture of the Birkenau concentration camp over the words "Other governments have separated women and children," suggested an answer: we were planting the seeds that could make us the new Nazi Germany.

But let me assure you, much of what we saw in these last weeks with those children had its origins in policies and "laws" so much closer to home than Germany three-quarters of a century ago. If you wanted to see where their ravaging really began, you needed to look elsewhere (which, surprisingly enough, no one has) -- specifically, to those who created the Guanta'namo Bay Detention Facility. From its inception beyond the reach of American courts or, in any normal sense, justice, this prison camp set the stage structurally, institutionally, and legally for what we've just been witnessing at the border.

Kenneling Children

The fingerprints of those who created and sustained that offshore island prison for war-on-terror detainees were all over that policy. Not surprisingly, White House Chief of Staff and retired General John Kelly, former head of SOUTHCOM, the U.S. military combatant command that oversees Guanta'namo, was the first official in the Trump administration to publicly float the idea of such a separation policy on the border. In March 2017, answering a question from CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the separation of children from their mothers, he said, "I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America" from making the journey here.

Just such separations, of course, became the well-publicized essence of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the border and, until the president's executive order issued last week, the numbers of children affected were mounting exponentially -- more than 2,000 of them in the previous six weeks, some still in diapers. (And keep in mind that there already were 11,000 migrant children in U.S. custody at that point.)

Apprehended at the border, the children were taken to processing facilities, separated from their parents thanks to a mix of Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Justice policy directives, and then locked up. From the moment they arrived at those facilities, the echoes of Guanta'namo were obvious (at least for those of us who had long followed developments there over the years). First, there were the most visible signs; above all, the children being placed in wire cages that, as journalists and others who saw them attested, looked more like holding cells for animals at a zoo or dogs at a kennel than for humans, no less children. This was, of course, exactly how the first Gitmo detainees were held back in 2002 as that prison was being built.

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President Trump foreshadowed the treatment to come. "These aren't people," he said in May, referring to undocumented migrants crossing the border, "these are animals." To make the children's caged existence worse still, the lights were kept on around the clock and the children subjected to interruptions all night, recalling the sleep deprivation and constant light used as a matter of policy on detainees at Guanta'namo Bay. In addition, caregivers were not allowed to touch the children. Even shelter workers were forbidden to do so, which meant adults were not able to console them either. And bad as any of this sounded, such conditions were but a prelude to a much deeper tale of abuse at government hands.

As at Guanta'namo, those children were also being subjected to a regime of intentional abuse. The cruel and inhuman treatment began, of course, with the trauma of separation from their parents and often from their siblings as well, since children of different genders were sent to different facilities (or at least different parts of the same facility). Such policies, according to pediatrician and Columbia professor Dr. Irwin Redlener, a leading authority on public policy and children in harm's way, amount to "child abuse by the government." In other words, it all added up to a new form of torture, this time visited upon children.

Asking for Congress and the White House to end the policy of separation, members of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry weighed in on the harm that the trauma of forced separation can cause: "Separating these children from their families in times of stress creates unnecessary and high-risk trauma, at the very time they need care and support the most." In addition, the "children who experience sudden separation from one or both parents, especially under frightening, unpredictable, and chaotic circumstances, are at higher risk for developing illnesses such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma-induced reactions." (Ironically, one of the few characteristics Justice Department lawyers in George W. Bush's administration acknowledged would constitute torture was "prolonged mental harm." In their words, for severe pain or suffering to amount to torture would require that "the acts giving rise to the harm must cause some lasting, though not necessarily permanent, damage.")

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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