Wie die Pilze nach dem Regen
In 1938, the Netherlands saw an influx of Jewish refugees, who were migrating to escape rising antisemitism in Germany. In 1939, Camp Westerbork began welcoming these families with a place to live. By all accounts it was meant to be hospitable and was, with reasonable space and facilities. It was also, by definition, a concentration camp.
In 1942, the occupying Nazis conveniently adopted the camp as a Durchgangslager for housing deportees (including Anne Frank) before shipping them off to Vernichtungslager to be executed.
Even under Nazi rule and repurposed as the “foyer to hell”, Camp Westerbork remained an orderly place with adequate healthcare and schooling.
In 1996, the United States began mandatory internment of unapproved immigrants prior to the processing of their asylum claims. In 2003, ICE was formed to apprehend and forcibly detain them. In 2017, the building of detention centers was accelerated and they continue to rise like mushrooms after the rain.
Growth comes with pains, and the government’s own investigators are continually finding deplorable conditions including child abuse and sexual assault. In such a situation, it seems the executive leader of the country has a few courses of action to choose from:
- Clearly declare that this is unacceptable for a civilized nation, promise the public it will end, and deploy auditors and internal policing to make it so.
- Ignore the situation by not acknowledging it, downplaying the reports, or claiming powerlessness.
- Distract by blaming others or engaging in whataboutism.
Regrettably, I don’t think we can expect the first choice from Donald Trump, so these conditions are likely to continue and not only harm many innocent people, but also poison political debate. Imagery of people being abused is divisive, as red state authoritarians will see law and order (assuming criminality) while blue state progressives lament the plight of the vulnerable. Meanwhile, though, I hope we increasingly improve conditions towards humane.
But I am also worried about a more subtle message that will result from the concentration of vulnerable immigrants from Central America. Our images (visual or otherwise) of this situation are predominately of strong white American men exerting power over weaker “Mexicans”. Due to the illusory truth effect, continued exposure to these images will cause us to associate race and language with weakness and otherness. This association and othering can be harmful even as we seek to protect them.
This insidious cultural damage is a legacy that may outlast even the concentration camps themselves.