“The cruelty is the point”
This is the title of an important article from last year about the ideology of our current regime. Namely, that it indulges in such gratuitously cruel stupidity that one wonders, simply… why? Why bother? Well, it’s because it’s designed that way. It’s supposed to be that cruel – it’s not gratuitous at all. It’s the entire point of it all. To quote Adam Serwer’s piece:
It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another… [their] community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.
So, with the news stories of detention camps for children – specifically to house children that have been forcibly separated from their parents/guardians (which is wildly cruel, which is the entire point of why it is done as policy – “they shouldn’t bring kids over the border if they don’t want to lose them!”) – are kept in horrible conditions designed to dehumanize them and alienate their guards from any sympathy. How do you feel sympathy for someone who smells like feces (because they have no access to sanitation), haven’t showered in weeks (because they have no access to any) and are becoming magnets for disease (because they are crowded together while in wildly unsanitary conditions)?
Well, that question was asked before. In another time, and another place, where another regime separated children from their parents and then kept them in bestial conditions. The following is from “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” by Nikolaus Wachsmann, as reviewed by the New Yorker.
Helm devotes a chapter to Ravensbrück’s Kinderzimmer, or “children’s room,” where inmates who came to the camp pregnant were forced to abandon their babies; the newborns were left to die of starvation or be eaten alive by rats. Wachsmann quotes a prisoner at Dachau who saw a transport of men afflicted by dysentery arrive at the camp: “We saw dozens . . . with excrement running out of their trousers. Their hands, too, were full of excrement and they screamed and rubbed their dirty hands across their faces.”
These sights, like the truck full of bodies, are not beyond belief—we know that they were true—but they are, in some sense, beyond imagination. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to imagine being one of those men, still less one of those infants. And such sights raise the question of why, exactly, we read about the camps. If it is merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead. If it is to exercise sympathy or pay a debt to memory, then it quickly becomes clear that the exercise is hopeless, the debt overwhelming: there is no way to feel as much, remember as much, imagine as much as the dead justly demand. What remains as a justification is the future: the determination never again to allow something like the Nazi camps to exist.
History is watching.