The Emerging Reign of Terror: The Evolving Profile of Institutional Bigotry Under Trump

We need to been alert and prepared, as the fog of neoliberal Obamaism lifts to reveal the stark outline of the Trumptatorship. The telltale early signs can be read by the dreadful events that first occurred – and continue to occur with a dreadful drumbeat –at the airports; where seemingly (but not actually) random travelers are swept up without warning, dragged into detention areas,and then are subjected to “aggressive interrogations.” And often enough dragged away in shackles (!) to flights out of the country.

Soon after the spectacular initiation of airport detention began, the ever-vicious ICE agents intensified and broadened the targets of their horrifying surprise assaults on Latino households, where seemingly (but not actually) random families are fractured by often physically brutal kidnapping of previously secure family members, followed by incarceration, expulsion procedures, and/or rapid deportation. These and other horrors are occurring with amplified visibility and frequency, even before the ever evolving formal Muslim ban, the amped up deportation regime, and the “license to kill” local policing policies are implemented.

Consider these  examples of border detention which, according a recent PEN America – the watchdog group for artists and writers’ rights – are representative of the “aggressive interrogations at the border that leave [the victims] humiliated, angry, and bewildered”. Here are three excerpts from the PEN report on border detention targeting writers and artists:

  • The bestselling children’s book author Mem Fox, an Australian citizen, was detained in late February at the Los Angeles International Airport while in route to a conference in Milwaukee. She was detained for nearly two hours by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials who reportedly believed she was traveling on the wrong visa, although Fox says she has traveled to the U.S. over 100 times before without any incident. Her interrogation was so aggressive that she “felt like I had been physically assaulted.” Fox, whose most recent book I’m Australian, Too is a celebration of immigration and Australia’s multicultural heritage, eventually received an apology from the U.S. embassy in Australia.

  •  Henry Rousso, a celebrated French historian of the Holocaust who was born and raised in Egypt, was detained for 10 hours at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Rousso, author of The Vichy Syndrome, about France’s struggle to reckon with its World War II history, was traveling to a symposium at Texas A&M University. Border officials questioned him about his visa and accused him of attempting to work illegally in the U.S.. Rousso was first told that he would be deported, but was eventually released after Texas A&M learned of the situation and intervened.

  • Aaron Gach, an American media artist and founder of the Center for Tactical Magic, contacted PEN after he was detained on February 23 on his return home to San Francisco from an art show in Brussels. Gach was subjected to detailed questioning regarding an art exhibition in which he had participated in Belgium, including questions about why he was invited, who invited him, and how often he takes part in such exhibits. Gach’s pieces included in the exhibition focused on issues related to incarceration in the United States; he is unsure whether he was detained in connection with his work. Gach was repeatedly asked to allow CPB agents access to his personal phone by turning it over and providing his password; when he finally agreed, the phone was removed from his sight for several minutes before being returned to him.

There are three agonizing threads to highlight from these unfortunately common examples – and apparently multiplying even while the Muslim ban is enjoined by the courts – of the treatment of travelers in U.S. airports on international flights these days. The first is that these incidents are actually among the mildest and least damaging among (possibly tens of) thousands of detentions of international (and now even domestic) travelers. All three were soon “cleared” of suspicion and allowed to go on their way after “only” hours of detention.

Yet these relatively mild experiences were still excruciating. Australian writer Mem Fox felt like she had been “physically assaulted,” French historian Henry Rousso said, “we must now face arbitrariness and incompetence at all levels,” and Aaron Gash, an American citizen, was forced to hand over his cell phone and password during an interrogation about his participation in an international art exhibit.

But the real significance of these events – and many others – is that the suffering extends far beyond the individuals who suffered through these nightmares. Because these people are “so innocent”, because these detentions seem to have fall at random on them,… the shock, alarm and pain falls on everyone who identifies with these people, everyone who says to themselves “if they can be detained, then so can I.” This new wave of detentions are actually the cutting edge of collective punishment.

To the cognoscenti, this seems to be more than a bit exceissive, since the term “collective punishment” has been recently applied to military attacks on arbitrarily selected members of a community.  The U.S. practiced collective punishment for years in Iraq or Afghanistan – and Russian forces practice it currently in Syria – by destroying buildings or even whole neighborhoods because insurgents had been known to frequent the area. The logic is categorical: any person in the designated territory – whether or not they are suspected of a specific crime or misdeed – can be punished as warning to everyone that they are subject to  attack if insurgents are known to frequent their neighborhoods.

It is this categorical logic that gives the arbitrary targeting its collective impact. The damage caused, for example, by U.S. air raids in Iraq, extended far beyond the direct targets whose homes and lives were destroyed. The raids impacted on the concentric circles of people related to the direct targets, whose lives were disrupted (or ended)  by the direct attack, or by the injuries to the family members or to people upon whom they depended or cared about. And – at the next level – the raids impacted on unrelated people in the same category, because the attacks served notice on them that they too – if insurgents had frequented or been rumored to frequent their neighborhoods – could be subject to attack. They were therefore also punished – since they altered their lives to prepare for or avoid the possible attack. So categorical punishment – even when visited upon a tiny minority of the targeted “category” – becomes collective punishment experienced by the whole community.

It would be hyperbole to equate these excruciating but still relatively innocuous detentions to the collective punishment visited on Iraqi and Afghani communities by the U.S. military and the analogous treatment of Syrian communities by the Russians. But the parallel is nevertheless a valuable one because the difference of severity does not alter  the fact that the airport detentions are already punishing a huge number of people who could themselves be targets.  This fearful ripple effect was fully expressed by the Pen America coverage of the detentions:

In the wake of reports like these and the expectation that a new travel ban will be issued at any moment, PEN America is hearing from artists, writers, poets, and other cultural and intellectual figures who are newly worried about making trips to the U.S., afraid of being turned away at the border, made to submit to invasive searches of their smartphones, interrogated about their political opinions and religious beliefs, or being subjected to arbitrary tests of their abilities. In a few short weeks, a pervasive fog of fear has encircled our borders, and it will deter countless people from even attempting to visit the country. PEN America is hearing from artists, writers, poets, and other cultural and intellectual figures who are newly worried about making trips to the U.S., afraid of being turned away at the border, made to submit to invasive searches of their smartphones, interrogated about their political opinions and religious beliefs, or being subjected to arbitrary tests of their abilities.

These detentions are thus just another (much milder) form of collective punishment: anyone who fits into the categories that the ICE agents consider suspicious are potential targets for hours-long detention or worse. And what PEN America reports is that this target group includescase “artists, writers, poets, and other cultural and intellectual figures.” The whole community is now fearful that they will experience “aggressive interrogation” and/or “being turned away at the border.” The entire community is thus placed in the situation of altering their life style. Deciding whether to forego a trip to avoid the “risk,” or to create contingencies if they are held up long enough to disrupt their plans, or take extra precautions to insure that they have contacts and documents that will ameliorate the ICE actions or shorten the detention. Everyone in the artistic community must worry before traveling to – or returning to – the United States, and create a kind of contingency plan around “worst case scenarios” just in case they become targets of “aggressive interrogation.”

The PEN America reporters were specifically concerned about the impact of airport detentions on artists and writers, but it is quite clear that they are only one of several communities who should consider themselves warned by these events. And once the “warning” takes hold, the collective punishment begins, with people changing their lives in decidedly negative ways in order to forestall, preclude, or avoid being subjected to ICE’s “aggressive interrogations”.

Before we consider these other  – larger and more seriously threatened – communities who are  already  in the cross-hairs of the Trump Administration ,we should call out a less visible, but nevertheless important pattern in the airport detentions. The targets in the PEN America report are a little surprising precisely because they do not fit into the categories that Trump has explicitly announced as his targets. Nor are they exceptions, many other aggressive interogations at airports involve native-born American citizens, travelers from non-Muslim countries, and  – non-Latino “suspects” of illegal immigration.   In this context, the the detention of artist and U.S. citizen Aaron Gach is valuable, since the interrogators offered a clue to the category that accounts for his detention:

Gach was subjected to detailed questioning regarding an art exhibition in which he had participated in Belgium, including questions about why he was invited, who invited him, and how often he takes part in such exhibits. Gach’s pieces included in the exhibition focused on issues related to incarceration in the United States; he is unsure whether he was detained in connection with his work. Gach was repeatedly asked to allow CPB agents access to his personal phone by turning it over and providing his password; when he finally agreed, the phone was removed from his sight for several minutes before being returned to him.

What may not have been clear to Gach is surely clear to the anyone who knows anything about the various United States “homeland security” forces. Their interest derived from his (artistic) activism opposing (racist) super-incarceration, which automatically puts him in the “enemy” camp.  And their successful effort at invading Gach’s cell phone was part of the mega policy of the U.S. government – pioneered by the Bush II administration and secretly perfected by the “fully transparent Obama administration – of tracking (and targeting) the “networks” surrounding any activist they consider dangerous.  The Trump administration has broken ranks with its precedessors by admitting that they are doing this, most recently (and perhaps inadvertently) in their currently enjoined “Muslim” ban, in which they articulated the intention of excluding people who “bear hostile attitudes” toward the United States. In ICE’s world, anti-incarceration activism is apparently a symptom of such “hostile attitudes,” making Gach eligible for detention and “aggressive interrogation.”  Moreover, it also makes his cell phone contact list eligible for the same treatment.

The other two people highlighted in the PEN America report also fit into the Trumpian version of “hostile attitudes” to the United States. Australian author Mem Fox had authored more than one children’s book celebrating open immigration, particularly from the non-white Global South. French Historian Henry Rousso was doubly doubly suspect.   In the first instance, he was raised in Egypt – a clear sign of possible (probable? inevitable?) “hostile attitudes.” In the second instance, his extensive scholarship on social catastrophes – including the Holocaust – contains considerable indirect and direct criticism of the U.S. government.

The method in the madness of harassing U.S. citizen like Aaron Gach – who cannot be prevented from returning to the United States, is that the detention (which made author Mem Fox feel “like I had been physically assaulted”) is punishment enough to signal all other activists challenging U.S. government policies – that ICE (and other police agencies) are willing to apply “aggressive interrogation” or worse whenever they come into their jurisdiction. So, without any formal prosecution these acts of categorical punishment – judiciously distributed across time and space and amply publicized to the activist community – are aimed at creating chilling effect on activism in general and resistance to Trump policies in particular.

But these two targets – artists and activists – are the sideshow when it comes to collective punishment by the Trumptatorship (and, sad to say, its two predecessor regimes).The central targets of the exclusionary policies practiced by the U.S. government for the past several decades, taken to extremes after 911, and now publicized and amplified by the Trump administration – Muslims, Latinos, and other peoples of color. The French historian, Henry Rousso, was painfully aware of the harsher detention experienced by travelers without the privileged institutional protection he eventually activated: “This incident has caused me some discomfort, but I cannot stop thinking of all those who suffer these humiliations and legal violence without the protections I was able to benefit from.” Among the further humiliations he witnessed was an instance of expulsion, the dreadful, life disrupting, and humiliating punishment that loomed over all the detainees:

By 9:00 p.m., there were only half a dozen people left. I was the only European, the only “Caucasian.” Two police officers arrived and headed for the gentleman seated in front of me, maybe a Mexican. They were coming to take him to the boarding gate. Then they handcuffed him, chained him at the waist, and shackled him.

Australian children’s book author Mem Fox, in her detention diary provided a another glimpse of how others – particularly those who did not speak English – were treated:

I heard things happening in that room, happening to other people that made me ashamed to be human.

There was an Iranian woman in a wheelchair, she was about 80, wearing a little mauve cardigan, and they were yelling at her – “Arabic? Arabic?”. They screamed at her “ARABIC?” at the top of their voices, and finally she intuited what they wanted and I heard her say “Farsi”. And I thought heaven help her, she’s Iranian, what’s going to happen?

There was no toilet, no water, and there was this woman with a baby. If I had been holed up in that room with a pouch on my chest, and a baby crying, or needing to be fed, oh God … the agony I was surrounded by in that room was like a razor blade across my heart.

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulated English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?

And, of course, these airports detentions are only one aspect of the repressive treatment that members of communities of color – especially African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims – experience when entering or living in the United States  – and now while traveling within the couontry. The ascension of Trump has been a kind of denouement for the policies that have evolved over the years since 911, and each community is already experiencing – and can expect a Trump amplification – of the repressive policies. For Muslim communities from the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Trump amplification will be formalized in the court-vetted Muslim ban . For Latino communities, the Trump amplification will be enacted in the officially unfettered ICE raids that are already underway; and for African Americans it will be the pending “police lives matter” Executive Order that promises police something approaching a license to kill.

The amplifications of repression against communities of color – either promised or already enacted – by the Trump administration constitute the use of collective punishment to institute a regime of state terror on these communities. The horrible experience of airport detention, which made Mem Fox “feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady,” is only a taste of what is already occurring. A more pungent – and horrifying – example can be found in this casual headline by Reuters: “Parents fearing deportation pick guardians for U.S. children.” With five million children facing the possibility of parental deportation – a process reminiscent of the fracturing slave families by selling off the parents – immigrant communities must begin planning for the adoption and protection of the children. Activist Juanita Molina articulated the nature of the terror experienced by the targets of the family-fracturing policy to Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong: “It’s almost like it’s psychological warfare that’s being waged against people of color to create a constant feeling of fear and uncertainty,”

The way in which the reign of terror reaches the individual targets of collective punishment was fully expressed by Sheridan Aguirre, who was brought to the U.S. as a two-year old and has been protected from deportation for four years by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. After his peace of mind was shattered by the news that two DACA recipients had been detailed. He told Guardian reporter Wong: “I’m feeling persecuted, alienated – like this administration is trying to terrorize me and my loved ones.”

He’s right.


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