The invasion of the baby snatchers

The history of breaking up families in America started not with Trump but the so-called 'discovery' of the new world.

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    People participate in a protest against recent US immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants [Stephanie Keith/Reuters]
    People participate in a protest against recent US immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants [Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

    "They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth." 

    The account is terrifying, nightmarish, determined to be detailed.

    "They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual's head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes." 

    Who is this person writing, and what is the scene he is describing? What wanton cruelty is this - and why is there such a contemporary resonance to this report?  

    "They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers' breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into a river, shouting: 'Wriggle, you little perisher.'" 

    The account is by an eyewitness detailing a massacre. The report is a horrifying read - but it demands and exacts attention. 

    "They slaughtered anyone and everyone in their path, on occasion running through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords. They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Savior and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it." 

    These are short extracts from Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas's "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies", written in 1542 and published in 1552 - a first-hand account of the carnage perpetrated on Native Americans by the earliest gangs of European settler colonialists descending on what they called "the New World".  

    History mirrors itself

    During the month of June, decent people in the US and around the world were aghast at the sight and sound of immigrant children being violently snatched away from their parents at the US-Mexico border and sent to detention centres, locked in cages, and left to cry for their parents in despair. US President Donald Trump, his Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and his senior adviser Stephen Miller went on record defending the practice. 

    The spiteful barbarity of these actions had an archaic ring to it. Most Americans had thought such atrocities were left behind in the darkest ages of forgotten histories. Trump, the crowning achievement of American democracy, elected to the highest political office of this land in a free and fair election, and his gang of heartless henchmen and women, brought those dark ages back to light. People, millions of Americans in particular, were mortified. 

    Soon after Trump ordered the separation of immigrant children from their parents, conscientious observers began exposing the longer roots of such racist cruelties - reminding shocked Americans how similar crimes had been committed against other vulnerable peoples in the US in recent and not so recent history. 

    Trump, we learn from these accounts, is not the first white man in a position of unfettered power and vicious cruelty, snatching children from their parents in America and putting them in cages to cry for their freedom. The origin of such crimes is much deeper, far more horrific.  

    "Separating migrant families is barbaric," wrote Shaun King in a brilliant piece for the Intercept, further adding, "It's also what the US has been doing to people of colour for hundreds of years." King rightly dismissed the kneejerk liberal reaction to this calamity by those who say such things are "not American".

    "What's happening right now in our country is, without question," he wrote, "a human rights catastrophe. Yet every deeply entrenched mechanism used in these policies and the spirit fueling this catastrophe are as American as Facebook and Disneyland." 

    The key phrase here is "the spirit fueling this catastrophe". Where and when did this damned spirit descend upon this land? Shaun King broke the issue down to simple facts: 

    This has happened here before. In fact, it has happened millions of times across the years in this country. Africans forced into slavery in this country were routinely separated from their children - not only in being transported to the Americas, but then repeatedly at the auction block. Not thousands, but millions - of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters - were all forcefully separated from each other. And this was no brief period of this nation's history, but a feature of the institution of slavery that existed in the United States for nearly 250 years. 

    But the history of such barbaric acts by European settler colonialists on this continent goes further back than 250 years - and the longevity of that history has an even more terrifying lesson to teach us. 

    A long genocidal history

    From the long and sustained history of slavery to the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II (upon which their "Supreme Court" had put its stamp of approval) targeting innocent children as the primary victims of white supremacist cruelty has been a common staple of US politics. 

    But the origin of such genocidal attitudes and cruel practices towards non-whites takes us back all the way to the very first white European settler colonialists who set foot on this continent. We must begin there, with the accounts given to us by eyewitness reports like Bartolome de las Casas' "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" to come closer to the event with more open eyes.

    You may think those bygone years are to be buried in the past; that, at the time of such European slaughter of Native Americans, the US did not even exist; that history cannot be read backwards. 

    From the genocidal conquest of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th and into the 16th century until the establishment of the United States in the late 18th century, the systematic extermination of Native Americans continued.

    The sword and the gun of the earliest massacres were then handed down to generations of the US army that continued with the slaughter of Native Americans - men, women and children - apace, as worst exemplified in the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 in which hundreds of Lakota people - men, women and children - were slaughtered by the US army. 

    All those acts of physical extermination eventually led to barbaric theories and acts of cultural genocide perpetrated by the selfsame racist ideology for generations to come. 

    'Kill the Indian, save the man'

    The US military doctrine of "Kill the Indian, save the man" was the dominant ideology of white supremacy that followed the physical extermination of Native Americans. Beginning in the late 19th century, the United States' and Canadian governments established what they called "Indian boarding schools" in which Native American children were taken away from their parents and forced to forget their own languages and cultures, learn the English of their masters, convert to an obsequious Christianity they preached to them, and be refashioned into their racist master's lookalikes.  

    These schools are not something of the past. They are still in use. These schools are emblematic of an epistemology of obedience and servility the white masters have sought to teach people they have conquered and call their barbarity "civilisation".

    The phrase "Kill the Indian, save the man" is attributed to Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt (1840-1924), the founder and superintendent of "Carlisle Indian School" - the very first prototype of such Nazi-like concentration camps designed for cultural extermination. 

    From the middle of the 19th century forward, the official racist policies of the US systematically targeted Native American children to destroy their characters and cultures, and by the turn of the century thousands had been terrorised in these "boarding schools". 

    Shaving these children's beautiful long hair was the ritual substitute of scalping and chopping off their heads as the earlier settler colonialists preferred to do. If you think that is too symbolic a reading of an otherwise merely racist act, then listen to what Pratt once said: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man." 

    Today, there is an entire museum, Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, dedicated to remembering these atrocities. I have performed my humble pilgrimage to this museum. Every new immigrant to the US must do the same. The image I saw at the museum of a barber's chair with scattered Native American children's hair around it still haunts me. 

    As late as 2011, a comprehensive NPR investigation documented the continued atrocities of the US government separating hundreds of Native American children from their parents and subjecting them to racist acculturation by placing them with foster homes chosen to rob them of their culture and heritage. 

    We read in this report: "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families": 

    Years ago, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools ... In 1978, Congress tried to put a stop to it. They passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which says except in the rarest circumstances, Native American children must be placed with their relatives or tribes. It also says states must do everything it can to keep native families together. But 32 states are failing to abide by the act in one way or another, and, an NPR investigation has found, nowhere is that more apparent than in South Dakota.

    So yes, as Andrew Mitrovica recently wrote for Al Jazeera, "Trump is not the only US president to have ripped thousands of families apart." But the history and boldfaced barbarity behind such practices are much deeper in the Americas than Trump or any other US president.

    Children of a lesser god

    Native Americans have been physically and culturally subject to systemic extermination. African Americans have been the target of similarly cruel acts of racist savagery. The children of immigrants have been the targets of similar structural violence seeking to manufacture the perception of second-rate citizenship in them.

    That is the overriding ideology behind such wanton cruelties: To instil fear and obedience in us, old and new immigrants, to rob us of our characters and cultures, to turn us into "white" wannabees. 

    But that is not the full extent of the atrocity. You must place all such pernicious acts within the larger insanity of predatory capitalism championed by these European settler colonialists. An entire economy in the US has been built on child labour. Child abuse in Catholic churches is an endemic horror story. Targeting children for recruitment into the US military is integral to the military logic of capitalism. Within the selfsame system, commercials consistently target children for consumption and invariably result in obesity and other health issues. A fanatical devotion to guns has turned schoolchildren into target practice and their schools into killing fields. Now the same sentiment, if not the exact policies, have assumed different shapes at the US borders which people facing the consequences of mass poverty and desperation US imperialism has helped exacerbate are trying to cross. 

    Abusing Native, African, and immigrant children is a long and sustained "American value". Delusional liberal Americans lie to themselves and the world at large when they claim such cruelties are "not American". They are American, and these endemic insanities of militant European zealotry go all the way back to the Children's Crusade (1212). 

    It is not accidental that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has cited the Bible in his defence of his border policies. His Bible - not the Bible of Liberation Theology - tells and teaches him that. 

    This does not mean other countries and climates are entirely immune to child abuse and infanticide of multiple sorts. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), thousands of Iranian children were decimated as they were sent to sweep mines on the battlefronts. Ayatollah Khomeini loudly praised the suicidal mission of the 13-year-old Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh (1967-1980). He was one of the thousands of young children who perished in that long, murderous war. 

    Similarly, in Africa, the criminal gangs like Boko Haram have targeted young girls for kidnap and abuse. Millions of Yemeni children are now on the verge of annihilation under the Saudi and other Arab bombs. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children and their parents have fled their homeland and many perished on their ways to safety, all primarily (but not exclusively) caused by the murderous Assad regime. 

    The global focus on the criminal atrocities of Trump in southern borders of the US is only the tip of the iceberg for a much more global perilous condition for children. But Trump's racist atrocities at US borders have a particular genealogy.

    These particular atrocities are rooted in Trump's white supremacist ideology now definitive to the xenophobic nationalism of the Republican Party that he has totally exposed for what it is. This racism is of a particular vintage and is definitive to the genocidal logic of European colonialism in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. 

    To see the larger colonial context of this racism, all you need to do is to shift your attention from the US and its historical European settler colonialism to Israel, where this colonialism is of a much recent European vintage. There all you need to do is to read this recent piece in which you will learn "How Netanyahu's father adopted the view of Arabs as savages: Benzion Netanyahu, the late father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looked to historian Joseph Klausner as his intellectual mentor and fully embraced his view of Arabs as a nation of half-savages to be defended against." 

    It is not just one or two Zionists who harbour such sentiments. In the precise words of Israeli Minister of "Justice" Ayelet Shaked, "The entire Palestinian people is the enemy, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure." That includes Palestinian mothers who give birth to "little snakes".

    Before Palestinian or Mexican or Nigerian children are subject to systematic abuse, wanton cruelty, unhinged violence, and eventual extermination, first they need to be robbed of their common humanity. They must be seen as savages and even "little snakes." After that: What do you do with wild beast and savages? Well, of course: You exterminate them.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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