On Monday, the White House doubled down on Donald Trump’s anti-gang rhetoric with a blog post titled “What You Need to Know About The Violent Animals of MS-13.” The White House used the word “animals” no less than 10 times and ended with line: “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”
The post was an apparent retort to critics who condemned the president’s dehumanizing language last Wednesday when he, in a typically nonsensical tirade, referred to members of the MS-13 gang, or possibly all undocumented immigrants (he seemed to conflate the two), as “animals.”
“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.”
Trump’s remarks were, as Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out, not his first use of such language. Last summer, while addressing a crowd of law-enforcement officers on Long Island, the president referred to MS-13 members as “animals” four times. “They shouldn’t be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives,” Trump said. “They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They’re animals.”
At the time, Trump’s remark encouraging a roomful of cops not to be “too nice” to detained suspects dominated the media’s attention. (“And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice.”) Then this February, in a speech before CPAC, Trump again refused to acknowledge the humanity of MS-13 members: “These are animals. They cut people. They cut them. They cut them up in little pieces, and they want them to suffer.”
After his most recent garbled attack on MS-13, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, defended his comments and said that they, in fact, did not go far enough: “Frankly, I don’t think the term that the president used was strong enough. This is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of rape, control, and kill. If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they’re more than welcome to.”
As a member of the media, I will now attempt to do exactly that. The first point is the most basic: Members of MS-13 are people. Even those affiliated with a transnational gang guilty of gruesome violence. Even those who were born in Central America. Even those who don’t speak English. To forget that is to take a step toward dehumanization and the easy rationalization of so much worse.