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We cannot prepare to kill others without first dehumanizing them. (Photo: flickr/cc/Takver)

We cannot prepare to kill others without first dehumanizing them. (Photo: flickr/cc/Takver)

Trouble at the Border

It’s about a culture of militarism, which, unavoidably, equals a culture of racism

Robert C. Koehler

Yes, we have a serious problem at the border—indeed, at every border we create and defend with force of arms and bureaucratic indifference.

“‘If you want water, just drink from a toilet.’ That’s what border patrol told one thirsty woman we met on today’s #DemsAtTheBorder trip. These are the same CBP personnel who threatened to throw burritos at members of Congress. Changes must be made.”

So tweeted U.S. Rep. Judy Chu in the wake of a visit by congressmen and women to Texas border facilities last week, stirring even further incredulity and disgust about the nature of these American concentration camps for immigrants.

The problem we have is ourselves.

In the process of defining ourselves in “us vs. them” terms—obsessively protecting ourselves from an enemy—we jettison our values and become everything we pretend not to be. Defining a particular group as the enemy gives one permission to dehumanize that group. This is essence of militarism. It’s also called racism.

Just prior to the congressional delegation’s border visit last week, organized by the House of Representatives Hispanic Caucus, ProPublica published a disturbing story about a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents called “I’m 10-15.” The term is Border Patrol code for “aliens in custody,” writes A.C. Thompson. The three-year-old group has about 9,500 members.

The enemy is killable, which means he and she—and their children—must be dehumanized.

Some of these members “shared derogatory comments about Latina lawmakers who plan to visit a controversial Texas detention facility on Monday, calling them ‘scum buckets’ and ‘hoes,’” according to the article.

They also “joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility” and posted several illustrations unrestrained in their vulgarity, making fun of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“In another thread, a group member posted a photo of a father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande . . . . The member asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies were so ‘clean,’” exclaiming, “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS.”

Joaquin Castro, head of the Hispanic Caucus, said, according to ProPublica, the site “confirms some of the worst criticisms of Customs and Border Protection. These are clearly agents who are desensitized to the point of being dangerous to migrants and their co-workers” and they “don’t deserve to wear any uniform representing the United States of America.”

Here’s the thing. This is situation normal at the American border—and by “border” I mean every confrontational setting between America’s armed protectors and a defined enemy. These settings are both internal and external.

Fascinatingly, barely a month before the ProPublica revelations were published, something called the Plain View Project hit the news. As I wrote at the time: “The project, an exhaustive, two-year analysis of social media posts by some 2,800 police officers and 700 former officers, from police departments across the country, revealed another non-surprise: a racist subculture permeates American police forces.”

Thousands of such posts, I noted, which are from officers’ personal Facebook pages, can be seen at the Plain View website. For instance: “It’s a good day for a choke hold.” “Death to Islam.” “If the Confederate flag is racist, then so is Black History Month.” And, as though in solidarity with the Border Patrol: “Sooner or later they end up in a cage, where (they) belong.”

The parallels are so naked, so obvious: When you define particular people as the enemy and arm yourself against them, you also dehumanize them. A father and his 2-year-old daughter, who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande, become “floaters.” Their lives don’t matter in the least. And when people holding such views are wearing official government uniforms (not KKK robes), their actions are in our names.

The crucial point to make here is that this is not about “bad apples.” It’s about a culture of militarism, which, unavoidably, equals a culture of racism. How can it not? The enemy is killable, which means he and she — and their children — must be dehumanized.

This was made gruesomely clear to me when I attended the Winter Soldier hearings outside Washington, D.C., in 2008. Indeed, this was the focal point of a panel discussion called “Racism and War: The Dehumanization of the Enemy.” The panelists talked about how they learned contempt and disgust for all Iraqis and how it manifested on the ground in Iraq.

“I joined the Army on my 18th birthday,” said panelist Mike Prysner. “When I joined I was told racism was gone from the military. After 9/11, I (began hearing) towel head, camel jockey, sand nigger. These came from up the chain of command. The new word was hadji. A hadji is someone who takes a pilgrimage to Mecca. We took the best thing from Islam and made it the worst thing.”

And Geoff Millard: “Hadji was used to dehumanize anyone there who is not us. KBR employees who did our laundry became hadji. Not a person, not a name, but a hadji. ‘They’re just hadjis. Who cares?’ The highest ranking officer, Gen. Casey, used the word. He called Iraqi people hadjis. These things start at the top, not the bottom.”

We cannot prepare to kill others without first dehumanizing them. This is the foundation of military culture, and I fear it pervades all our armed agencies. There are no obvious or simple solutions, like tougher enforcement of political correctness by governmental higher-ups.

For now, the best I can say is this: Change—setting aside our weapons, redefining what it means to be safe—begins with awareness.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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