By the time Donald J. Trump threw in the towel, who among us hadn’t seen or heard the chilling videos in which US border officials shamelessly grabbed uncomprehending children and toddlers from their pleading mothers and fathers? Some children were told, by people with little sense of the resonances of history, that their parents were being taken to bathe or shower. Border officials 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.
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 to 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 Guantánamo 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.
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 US military combatant command that oversees Guantánamo, 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.