Atrocity and Euphemism

Atrocity and Euphemism copy

Ukrainegate continues to consume the Trump administration like a California wildfire. With each passing day more evidence accumulates of our fake president’s criminal intent, the vastness of the wrongdoing by members of his administration at the highest levels (to include the Secretary of State and Attorney General), and the exposure of its shameful lies and alibis to try to cover it all up. Giuliani’s Ukrainian gangster pals got arrested and he may be next, an acting Cabinet officer resigned while others are being subpoenaed, and perhaps most notable of all, intrepid members of the Foreign Service continue to break ranks, defying the orders of their own State Department by testifying before Congress to provide still more eyepopping incrimination.

Impeachment is all but a certainty at this point; conviction in the Senate remains a longshot, but not nearly as long as it was a week ago, given the dyepacks that continue to explode almost daily, spraying blue paint on Donald Trump and his clown car of vile henchmen.

In addition to the self-inflicted wounds Trump continues to self-inflict over Ukraine specifically, our Dear Leader has of course added to his troubles with his unconscionable actions in Syria, alienating even his staunchest senatorial sycophants when he needs them most, an incredible accomplishment given their heretofore permanent positioning prostrate at his feet.

But needless to say, the impact of the US withdrawal from Syria on Trump’s political fortunes is far from its most significant consequence.

It’s hard to assess where Trump has done the most damage as president, since the slate of candidates is so vast and competitive. In the long run, climate change is probably the, er, winner, if we are judging by sheer destructiveness to the entire planet. Facilitating nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea is certainly in the running, as is undermining respect for the rule of law and a free press in the US, devastating the global standing of the United States as a democratic nation and credible ally, skewing an entire branch of government for decades to come by packing the federal judiciary with right wing ideologues all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, and generally dealing a savage blow to American representative democracy as a whole.

But if you want to talk about simple, straightforward violence to human beings, three related episodes stand out to me: Syria, the Saudis, and our southern border.


We all knew from the start that Donald Trump was a proudly uninformed ignoramus on the topic of foreign policy (also: all other topics), one who mulishly refuses to read the PDB or listen to the subject matter experts, who has a hopeless man-crush on various tyrants, and who acts impulsively and transactionally and mostly to line his own pockets.

But never has his shitshow of a non-skillset been on more blatant display than in the abandonment of our Kurdish allies, the attendant and lasting damage to US credibility, the unleashing of more than 10,000 previously incarcerated ISIS fighters back onto the global battlefield, and the gift that this whole fiasco has been to the unholy trinity of Assad, Erdogan, and Putin.

How bad was it? So bad that even some Republicans noticed.

The Trump administration is now a willing party to ethnic cleansing—genocide, they used to call it. It’s hard to say what aspect of it most sickening: the humanitarian crisis…….the reckless and unnecessary destabilization of this part of the Middle East, one of the few areas in that region where we’d had any real success…..the gobsmacking unforced error of reviving the Islamic State….. the anonymous agony of US Special Forces soldiers who expressed their shame at having been ordered to turn their backs on the brave Kurdish comrades beside whom they have fought…..the sight of Russian armored vehicles flying the tricolored flag as they rolled though northern Syria, of Russian soldiers wandering around a hastily evacuated US base, and of US Air Force F-15s bombing another of our own bases to keep it out of enemy hands. (Paging Milo Minderbinder.)

And all because inexplicably we saw fit to install a sociopathic D-list game show host and serial con man as the leader of the so-called Free World.

Truly a Russian asset could not have done a better job of mucking this up for the United States and handing an effortless victory to the Kremlin and its allies in Damascus and Tehran. (Hey, has anyone ever wondered if Trump is secretly working for Putin? Because it sure looks like it.)

From Helsinki to Brussels to the Oval Office, Trump has consistently served Putin’s interests over those of the United States he is sworn to protect and defend, but never has his blatant fealty to the Russian president been on more jawdropping display. At this point not even Trump’s most gymnastic apologists (looking at you, Victor Davis Hanson) can deny that he is openly advancing Russia’s interests over those of the US. But I am sure they will try.

Similarly, there has hardly ever been a more stark example of the wrongheadedness of isolationism—a mindset that has long been a staple of the American right wing, and long before Trump I hasten to note. But his ascent has provided a gutting demonstration of its criminal foolishness. One need not be a hawk to understand that, by sheer dint of our military and global influence, the US cannot just withdraw from its global commitments (least of all at the whim of a monstrous cretin who happens to have the nuclear codes). That is not an argument for imperialist adventurism, but merely a recognition of practical reality, and the interconnectedness of international security.

Disengaging from ill-advised Middle Eastern wars is an admirable objective, for sure. But claiming you’re doing that while ordering a disastrous, impulsive withdrawal that opens the door to a sectarian bloodbath that benefits our enemies, AND in the same week stepping up US involvement in a much more illegitimate war in Yemen kind of undermines your cred.

Ironically, federal law—both in the Constitution as originally conceived and in subsequent legislation such as the War Powers Act of 1973—is set up to inhibit the commander-in-chief from unilaterally deploying the nation’s armed forces into combat. It’s not set up to stop him or her from sparking horrific violence by withdrawing forces, as Trump did last week. It was the kind of abrupt bellum interruptus that Donald Trump would have been smart to have thrice executed when he was still married to Ivana and they were pumping out young’uns.

Posterity will look upon our actions with withering judgment. And I say “our” because the world does not look upon what is happening in Syria as the actions of Donald Trump, but collectively of the nation that unaccountably elected him and even now is moving painfully slowly to eject him from power.


I mentioned that last week some Republicans cautiously raised their heads out of their gopher holes to object to the withdrawal from Syria. Two cheers. Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times and Susan Glasser in the New Yorker both wrote about the hypocrisy of such GOP complaints while it nonchalantly shrugs over Ukraine, just as it shrugged over Russian interference in our election, to which the antics with Kiev are of course related.

The unavoidable bottom line is that Republicans simply do not care about things like the evisceration of the Constitution or the debasement of our democracy in the same way that they care about US power projection. (In fact, they cheer it, fans of the unitary executive that they are.) Then again, if it’s simply a matter of hawkishness, where was the outrage over North Korea, for example, arguably just as damaging as the abandonment of our Kurdish allies and the early Christmas gift we just gave to Putin and Assad? (The withdrawal from the JCPOA was another incredible idiocy, but at least that was in line with meatheaded Republican orthodoxy.) For that matter, Ukrainegate has a concrete foreign policy component of its own, in terms of the hostage-holding of US military aid to an ally in the midst of a shooting war with the Russian Federation.

I’ve written before about the bizarre willingness of the conservative community to abandon decades of bellicosity and holster its sabers in order to maintain obeisance to a guy who used to sell mail order steaks. (See Surrender of the Hawks, February 22, 2018). So why did they suddenly rediscover their collective testicles now, when they were so meek and mild over previous lunacies? I confess it surprised me: I firmly believed that they would find a way to excuse the betrayal of the Kurds, just as they turned a blind eye to the DPRK fiasco, the humiliation of Helsinki, the undermining of NATO, and—oh yeah—the general enabling of Russian power, to include giving them sway over US elections (though it’s fair to characterize Syria as a component of that).

Some pundits have suggested that the outcry over Syria, coming as it did hot on the heels of Ukrainegate, was a kind of sublimation. Unwilling to utter a discouraging word about Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional behavior in leveraging a vulnerable foreign ally to smear one of his domestic political foes, Republicans channeled their frustrations with Trump into the withdrawal from Syria, where the longstanding charade of GOP commitment to national security offered some cover. (To the extent that they really have frustrations with Trump in the first place, or really care about the Kurds or global security at all, beyond mere posturing.)

Maybe. In the end, it’s largely irrelevant and serves only to highlight their hypocrisy, except insofar as it may mark the beginning of a breach in the red wall around Trump heading into an impeachment fight.

I don’t know if this glimpse of nascent Republican courage (note: sliding scale) will develop into a substantive and lasting break with their tinhorn hero; I haven’t exactly been dazzled by their moral fiber thus far. However, I am confident that the debacle in Syria will do down as one of the most shameful chapters in recent American foreign policy, and maybe the dumbest, worst, and most unforgivable international relations decision of the modern era. The capper to the whole affair was Trump’s flip, valor-stealing comment that the Kurds weren’t with “us” on Normandy Beach. (NB: were any Trumps there, or were their bone spurs acting up?)

As the meme goes, the Saudis didn’t help us at Normandy either, but fifteen of them showed up for 9/11.


Which brings us to the House of Saud.

Even as he crowed—dishonestly of course—that he was bringing US troops home (in truth they are just being re-deployed elsewhere, and it is now clear haven’t even left Syria), Trump turned around and sent another 1000 troops to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to serve the interests of his murderous business partners there. Talk about insult to injury.

The Saudi regime is firmly fixed as among the worst on the planet. In the first four months of this year alone it executed 105 people, most of them by beheading, including 37 decapitated in a single mass execution last April. It is a medieval theocracy, a plutocracy, and a hereditary kleptocracy, with an economy greased by the labor of indentured immigrant workers tantamount to slavery. It is misogynistic to an Atwoodian extreme, viciously intolerant of other religions, and a state sponsor of terrorism, including against the United States through its Islamist proxies. It exports a particularly hateful and violent form of religious extremism, and per above, was the source of the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers. If in response to September 11th the US was going to invade another country besides Afghanistan, it should have been Saudi Arabia, not Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump is cozy as cozy can be with this regime, whose autocratic values he shares, and which is a lucrative partner for his family and that of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But as with many of the horrors of modern Republicanism, Trump did not start this particular greasefire, though he certainly poured gasoline on it—a fitting metaphor even if I do say so myself. US-Saudi relations were born of a demon seed, with the foundation of the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in 1933, and reached a new level of odiousness with the oil industry connections between the Families Bush and Saud, which contributed to the deployment of half a million US troops to the region in the Gulf war. (I was one of them.) But Trump has taken things to a new extreme, the cherry atop the rancid cake being his excusal of the grisly murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of the United States, and his refusal to hold Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman accountable. For those who have forgotten, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey by assassins acting on MbS’s orders, then brutally dismembered with a bonesaw, all surreptitiously captured on audiotape by the Turks. In the wake of that deliberately gruesomely assassination, it is no exaggeration to say that the Saudis might rightly be a pariah state were it not for the patronage and protection of the US, which is to say, of Donald Trump. L’etat c’est him in spades, in this case.

(And that too is connected to the current Syrian fiasco. David Frum, in his concise survey of the reasons Trump gave this gift to Erdogan, cited as one of them “Payoff to Turkey to cover up recording of Khashoggi murder by Trump allies.”)

The Saudi regime is currently prosecuting an especially ugly little regional war in Yemen, one that the US has no business abetting. One can make a utilitarian case for American military engagement in various Middle Eastern quagmires, nasty though they are, from northern Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan. There can be no such rationale for US involvement in Yemen, apart from our venal partnership with the despots of Riyadh. That we would in the same week abandon genuine allies like the Kurds while increasing military assistance to monsters like the rulers of Saudi Arabia is doubly stomach-turning.

But we did, the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi, and the ashes of 3000 Americans at Ground Zero, be damned.

Because of course.


Let me now veer off on what may seem like a tangent. But it ain’t.

As an international atrocity, the unfolding massacre of the Kurdish people is twinned with an existing domestic one: the continuing state-sponsored kidnapping of children by the government of the United States and their incarceration in concentration camps along our own southern border.

The newest outrages in Ukraine and Syria threaten to eclipse the horrific theft of small children and (in many cases) permanent separation of them from their parents, to say nothing of their inhuman detention in filthy conditions in these camps. But even as international horrors pile up, we cannot forget what continues to go on in our name domestically, as it of a piece with the same criminal mentality that is now giving us those other atrocities as well.

We need not quibble over the term “concentration camp,” even though what we have meets the dictionary definition by any reasonable measure. As I’ve written before, if you’re having a national debate about whether or not you have concentration camps, you probably do. (That conservatives are more outraged about the use of the term than about the camps themselves speaks volumes.)

What the Trump administration is doing—taking babies and small children from their parents, ostensibly as a means to deter border crossing and asylum seeking—is beyond unconscionable. Indeed, the deterrence argument itself is specious: there is no pragmatic point to this policy, only cruelty for cruelty’s sake, to which MAGA Nation openly thrills. And while Donald Trump and his goons are the source of this sin, we as a people are complicit for not being out in the streets demanding a stop to it and consequences for those who perpetrate it.

I keep returning in these pages to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is rapidly displacing 1984 as the most pertinent and prescient vision of a dystopian future, which is to say the present. It is the book for our times, and not for nothing (as they say in Long Island) is the ripping of children from their mothers central to its premise—nor merely a matter of fiction. Masha Gessen, who brings the gravitas of someone raised in the Soviet system, has written about how the forced abduction of children from their parents is a time-honored technique of state terrorism:

Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened: this is the moment when a person will confess to anything. The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is “Requiem,” a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children. In “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” a fantastically popular miniseries about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany, a German officer carries a newborn out into the cold of winter in an effort to compel a confession out of his mother, who is forced to listen to her baby cry.

But speaking of Orwell, long after the obliteration of Marxism-Leninism as the central political threat to liberal democracy, the enduring genius of his signature novel remains his vision of the language as a weapon. And as a general rule, the worse the atrocity, the more urgent the resort to semantics.

In addition to the controversy over “concentration camp,” we spoke earlier about “ethnic cleansing”—another world class verbal dodge—and we see that craven dynamic in play again in the so-called “family separation policy.” Could there be a more clinical, bloodless, anodyne term for state-sponsored kidnapping? It would be like stabbing someone in the chest and calling it an “ad hoc torso perforation.”

Let us therefore banish “family separation” to the dustbin of history, to coin a phrase, and henceforth call it what it is. And what it is is a crime against humanity, committed in our name.

The Trump administration, led by immigration czar Stephen Miller—among the few figures who can give Trump himself a run for his money as one of the most loathsome people on earth—has simultaneously bragged about how tough it’s been with this sadistic policy, and pretended it isn’t doing it at all. Such is the gaslighting that is its stock in trade. The vile lie that the Obama administration did the same thing has already been thoroughly debunked and is not worth wasting a dollop of metaphorical ink here. In truth, the institutionalized kidnapping of children as a matter of federal policy in the United States is unprecedented, and the direct result of the deliberately sadistic philosophy of the Trump administration.

Sometimes they own it like barbarians, and sometimes they deny it like cowards—yet another marker of their absolute moral repugnance.

I have written at length about xenophobia (just a fancy word for racism) as the central animating impulse of Trumpism. John Oliver—himself an immigrant and naturalized American—recently ran a brilliant segment exposing the farce of this administration’s incessant claims that it supports “legal” immigration. In truth, Trump and his followers bear a white-hot animus toward immigration of all kinds, full stop, legal and otherwise, save for a paltry few Rinso white Scandinavians.

Confronted with the fact that, Native Americans excepted, we are all of us immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, anti-immigration fanatics often talk about how their own ancestors came to America “the right way.” But as Oliver points out, before 1870 there were no real restrictions on immigration to the US at all: all you had to do was show up, which is very much what today’s undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are still doing, even as Team Trump tries to demonize them for it.

Confronted with the blindingly obvious fact that white Europeans stole this land from its original inhabitants by means of murder, enslavement, and genocide in the first place, those same xenophobes have no real answer at all, except twisted pride. It is no wonder that such people have also convinced themselves that we are justified in punishing small children for the actions of their parents—what they self-righteously call “breaking the law.” (“Their parents shouldn’t have brought them here!” is the standard response.) Those same people are remarkably silent when it comes to other lawbreaking, such as campaign finance laws, the emoluments clause, and conspiring with a foreign power to defraud the United States.

The sheer human cost of this vomit-inducing policy is apparent if you’ve seen any of the scenes of those weeping parents and children who have been fortunate enough to be reunited, holding on to each other for dear life, as if they aren’t sure when someone with a badge and a gun is going to try to tear them apart again.

Is it cheesy to go to Paul Simon here? Maybe, but if your heart doesn’t break when you hear legendary Jamaican drummer Winston Grennan’s drumroll at the top of “Mother and Child Reunion,” you might be dead:

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion a way

Therefore, as we move forward with the long overdue process of removing a criminally unfit president from office, and coping with the unfolding bloodbath overseas that he capriciously precipitated, let us not lose sight of this other, earlier atrocity that he perpetrated at home, one that carries on even now, and will surely be remembered as one of the darkest domestic chapters in modern American history, to go with the stain of that international one.

What is going on in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, and on our southern border are all interconnected atrocities, all reflective of what our country has devolved into. Let us redress their root cause, or share the everlasting guilt for failing to do so.


Photo: John Moore/Getty Images. A two-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is searched near the US/Mexico border.


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