“I will not cut off any part of me and place it behind fences and bars and the fake ass believe that there is a difference between the inside and the outside. There is no outside anywhere, anymore. Just where we are. And what we do while we are here. Human beings can never be reduced to numbers. Not in concentration camps. Or reservations. Not in refugee camps. Not in schools. And not in jails. These people, brother – they resist. I will share these words with them. And I will do it in your name. And in the name of all who imagine. Stay well and safe. Resist. And love.“Suheir Hammad, Letter to Anthony (Critical Resistance)
As with much of what I write, the words that follow are disturbing. And I hope you read them all — precisely because they are disturbing. This post is meant to disturb. Averting your eyes in times of moral crises only means that the blood will dry on your hands before you see it.
One of the most underreported aspects of the COVID-19 Pandemic is the virus’ insidious impact on the most vulnerable populations on earth: those you let yourself forget, simply because you can. Prisons. Refugee camps. Overcrowded slums. Migrant detention facilities. Those “poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.” I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase somewhere before. But how often do you remember it?
Researchers and analysts are warning about the implications of the virus for conspiratorial anti-government forces, non-state armed groups, and any number of assorted security threats and ideological extremists: “millions of people stuck at home will turn to social media, where disinformation is rife. Radical Islamists and far-right groups are exploiting widespread confusion and fear to spread hate.”
But lost amidst the punditry is a very unsettling but pressing reality: we are facing a phenomenon far worse with COVID-19 and “radicalism.” What COVID-19 should teach you is empathy. Compassion. Your life — and mine — are inextricably linked with, and depend on, the lives of others we don’t know, and never will. Because the sustaining force behind casual genocide is the comfort of apathy for populations at large.
We’ve known that Coronavirus was present inside the Uighur concentration camps in China since January—but I’ve seen not a single Tweet about the subject, a Facebook post…only a fleeting headline months ago. And that’s not the only overcrowded camp of squalor in which more innocents will die. You will never know their names, and that should unsettle you. Just because it isn’t personal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. “Never again” shouldn’t mean “never again to us,” but “never again to anyone.” And in the time of COVID-19’s casual genocide, unfortunately (or, fortunately–depending on the optimism one can conjure), “thank God it’s not me” appears to mean “thank God it’s not me—yet.”
“Social distancing” from COVID—19 may be an inconvenience; this period in history will decimate the economy, transform modes of employment forever, and likely have unforeseen ripple effects far into the future—but “shelter in place” and “six feet away” are modalities of social self-preservation that, ultimately, are a great privilege. A luxury that communities in prisons, ICE detention, refugee camps, and places like Gaza do not have.
COVID-19 exacerbates the preexisting condition of our global inequity—and the world’s compromised immunity includes a reservoir of empathy that depletes day by day. Targeted groups packed together in dense concentration like detention facilities and refugee camps are ALREADY described in the language of genocide. “Infestations.” “Viruses.” “Insects.”
This is the language of genocide.
The Metrics of “Our” Humanity
It’s disturbing to witness the racism, xenophobia and genocidal rhetoric spreading faster than the Coronavirus Pandemic. But the horrifying lack of empathy is much more terrifying. This is the opposite lesson one should draw from COVID-19.
Texas’ Lieutenant Governor provoked outrage with his assertions that the elderly would or should sacrifice themselves to COVID-19 for the young. But in the public outrage over Dan Patrick’s incendiary suggestion — something was missing. And that absence is profoundly disturbing.
The problem with tracking pandemics is in the metrics. The sterile language of a clinic. The outbreak of calculus that measures risk, predicts death rates, estimates survival capacity. Reducing humans to statistics.
Human beings can never be reduced to numbers. Not in concentration camps. Or reservations. Not in refugee camps. Not in schools. And not in jails.”
Suheir Hammad, Letter to Anthony (Critical Resistance)
Whenever that phenomenon begins to appear, much less to spread, it’s time to be watch your language – because that language has implications. Some might even say grave implications.
As a friend of mine put it: “Guys, be careful about rhetoric that pits “producers” (doctors, farmers, factory workers, etc.) against “parasites” (Bankers, landlords, etc.) because that’s a wedge issue that white supremacists like to exploit. You get people all fired up about parasites and then get them to associate parasites with (usually) Jewish people. Given our current situation, people are probably also more receptive to it right now too.”
Corona Virus Hate Crimes. A new category. But is Coronavirus Hate Crime, in fact, anything new? Or does it map onto other configurations of stigmatization, marginalization, and demonization of entire populations?
Neo-Nazis gleefully plot to exploit the Pandemic, by attacking hospitals treating the afflicted, or to exacerbate Coronavirus’ spread by weaponization of the disease as a bio-weapon. You haven’t heard about it, because casual racism, lack of empathy, and concern only for “yours” masks the fallout that will outlast this virus. But it was already here. So were the contagion factors of the casual genocide’s spread.
And it will get worse. Vulnerable populations, already at so much risk, are facing all manner of targeted onslaughts right now, from literal Nazis to xenophobes and – of course – government agencies like ICE. Rounding up migrants in California on the very first day of the state’s shelter-in-place mandates.
I worry about my students. Many of them are from Westchester, sent home to weather to the storm. Many of them are Jewish – reeling from anti-Semitic incidents on campus. I fear for their communities, and the impact of Westchester’s emergence as an epicenter of COVID-19’s presence in New York, given the Jewish community’s visibility, vulnerability to anti-Semitic attacks—particularly in recent months—and the considerable media coverage focused on the infected rabbi and synagogue associated with one outbreak (in the global scope of over half a million).
I worry about my Asian students, returning home early from study abroad programs. I wonder if xenophobic border guards will screen them more harshly. Refuse them entry. And there is nothing I can do. Asian-Americans have faced an unforgivable and intense spike in hate crimes over COVID-19. The Coronavirus Pandemic is being weaponized by many different forms of white supremacy, against many vulnerable and visible communities. Don’t ignore that. We cannot ignore that—none of “us.”
I worry about Black friends and family in the South, bracing for impact in Louisiana. A viral hurricane Katrina. In Georgia. Across impoverished “all-American” red states with no ventilators or tests, but plenty of preachers willing to hold mass services and government officials lining up behind partisan drill sergeants of public health denial.
But, after all, aren’t we lucky? We reside in the freest, most affluent nation, that shining meritocratic city on the hill. But death is not a meritocracy. Nor is life. Not the thin dividing line between the two, either. When there is no there-there, who is the “we?”
Bare Life – Those Who Cannot Be Sacrificed Were Never Human At All
Step outside the United States. Examine “life” on the margins. Ask yourself if that life is worth consideration. Worthy of salvation. As recognizable as your own. Think hard – I don’t need the answer. Only you do.
The same concerns about hold true in the Muslim world, not only in refugee camps but also in Sunni-Shia areas hit hard by post-Zarqawi sectarian fissures. If you thought anti-refugee sentiment was bad during Trump’s presidential campaign… Well, COVID—19 is about to make that immeasurably worse for the millions displaced time and time again.
Visit those slipshod configurations at the borderlands, the neither here-nor-there spaces: whether in detention centers, teeming with asylum seekers or in overcrowded prisons already desperately in need of reform.
Most vulnerable are innocent children in locations like ICE detention centers, or the Al-Hol refugee camp where ISIS detainees reside. The Coronavirus Pandemic is showing us—all of us —who constitutes the global “human,” and who does not.
Please consider the ramifications.
In an academic sense, the global pandemic recalls Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer; the concept of “bare life” instantiated in real life, unfolding as rapidly as the virus spreads and the newsticker at the bottom of the television screen shifts to a new statistic, another tragedy. Differential valuations of life that has no meaning on the global stage. Whose life matters. Who is expendable.
But of course this is no academic matter.
Viruses, after all, do not respect the clinical walls of the Ivory Tower. Why would they? In 2010’s Frames of War, Judith Butler writes “I am not sure that numbers or anecdotes, through modes of taking account, can alone answer the question of whose lives count, and whose do not.” Nor am I. At all.
In the affluent US, we find horror in the thought of grandparents asked to die to save their grandchildren from COVID-19. What, then, about the millions of innocent children in detention facilities, concentration camps, and refugee tent cities?
Consider the plight of Syria’s displaced. Explain to millions displaced time, and time, and time again—refused entry to nations like our own, as fear-mongering politicians capitalize on depictions of entire populations as ticking time-bombs—that their lives now depend on hand-washing, and “social distancing,” not just avoiding the ravages of war, famine, poverty… Will you explain to them that they are simply not as human? Or will you tell them, “well, you’re just shit out of luck.” Perhaps you’d rather not think of them at all. Easier that way. Almost as if their lives did not register for you at all.
Consider those populations already openly detested by the president of the world’s most powerful nation. On March 20, Trump’s closure of the southern border came, no doubt, as a gift in the eyes of the president’s supporters – but at what cost? According to Trump, ““We are treating the borders equally.” Is there anyone left – even, or especially, his followers eager for the arrival of such a day – who believes him? Even as Trump spoke of non-discrimination and equity, both the president and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of new measures to empower Customer and Border Enforcement… in terms of the “China Virus.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar invoked section 362 of the Public Health Service Act, citing concerns over viral spread amongst “significant numbers of illegal immigrants,” particularly those apt to enter the “country illegally and normally are held in a congregate setting like a Custom and Border Protection.” ICE. Azar is speaking of ICE detention camps.
The president and his henchmen are deliberately attempting to spin mismanagement of a global health crisis as a foreign infestation. Like it or not, this kind of language is a weaponization of the same xenophobia that ushered Trump into power. That will likely keep him in power. Never forget: he isn’t the cause. Trump is the symptom. That reality is much more upsetting, but must be kept in mind. Like the xenophobia lurking beneath the presidential victory of 2016, the virus of dehumanization is sure to spread its infection deeper and deeper than COVID-19 – “social distancing” ensures this outcome.
Leadership figures, with games of politically expedient weaponization, the trade of life and death for power. They’re not better than the Nazis scheming to spit on Jews in the street to spread this virus—only more “civilized” (or perhaps recognizably “civil”) with the mechanism of disease delivery.
Step inside the neither-here-nor-there spaces of Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Even John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has called attention to the vulnerability of life inside these facilities: “the design of these facilities requires inmates to remain in close contact with one another—the opposite of the social distancing now recommended for stopping the spread of the lethal coronavirus.”
Most of the detainees in ICE custody are housed in facilities run by for-profit prison companies: financially incentivized to – let’s speak clearly here – let people die. Inmates in ICE custody are understandably terrified. Nearly a week ago, ICE confirmed the presence of Coronavirus in the agency’s first detainee.
Those held in ICE facilities knew it was coming. The plague coming for their lives is “inevitable,” after all. They have no access to soap. Like the disappeared and indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram, at Abu Ghraib, a considerable number of the detention camp’s inmates have been convicted of no crime—more than half; “more than 6,000 have passed initial asylum screenings.”
ICE is using coercive force – like pepper spray – on migrants in corporate-run detention centers – where cases of Coronavirus have already broken out. The third incident in three days – inside camps run by the private prison mercenaries GEO. In Texas. In Louisiana.
Take Lázaro Siberio-Pérez. It has been two days since guards at the holding facility’s “protocol” injured him so badly the Cuban asylum seeker cannot put on clothing. It is too painful. In other locations that, much like the Endless War on Terror’s black sites, we cannot see. Or more appropriately: that we refuse to see.
According to ICE, “detainees refused to return to their beds as ordered, so the guards initiated a “use of force” protocol by spraying them with pepper spray.” And that is the extent of access ICE will now allow media outlets—statements as paper thin as the stockpile masks depleted in New York City hospitals. Flimsy. But at least Customs and Border Control, well…their sterile masks will endure. Who is keeping yours in place?
Remember when you ignored Guantanamo because those indefinite detentions were ‘wartime necessity?’ Time to look again. In the time of COVID-19, indefinite detention continues in the continental US – against those proven innocent.
But, hey. It’s an Iranian. Who really gives a fuck, right? He must have done something. So, fresh sanctions for Iran, huh. The hardest hit country in the Middle East. Sanctions do fuck-all to take down regimes. They only harm the population. To quote Aiden Wylie, “Iran also provides the last best hope in healthcare for citizens (IDP or otherwise) of neighboring countries in need of serious care. The ramifications of these sanctions spread over several nations. So yeah, fuck sanctions.”
Let me explain how sanctions work. Sanctions are – if we are to be honest – state-sanctioned acts of collective punishment (violations of, you know, the Geneva Conventions) that aim to pressure a governmental apparatus through various coercion against a population of…civilians. So wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Please remind again: why do they hate us?
Stories circulate on Twitter, under the tag #CoronaVillains: of teenagers licking doorknobs, of global scams capitalizing off the widespread fear that continues to grow and grow…and grow—with no curve to flatten in sight.
Beyond these intentional villains, the apathetic to unseen and equally human life elsewhere, a reminder: “it is to the stranger we are bound, the one, or the ones we never knew and never chose. To kill the other is to deny my life, not just mine alone, but that sense of my life which is, from the start, and invariably, social life” (Butler, 2010).
If those lives in China, Iraq, Syria, the American border and elsewhere do — in fact — constitute “humans” for you, where is your concern for them? Why the differential outrage? I think you know the answer. And it’s detestable.
These people, brother – they resist. I will share these words with them. And I will do it in your name. And in the name of all who imagine. Stay well and safe. Resist. And love.
Suheir Hammad, Letter to Anthony (Critical Resistance)
A Casual Genocide
Asylum seekers. Refugees. Migrant laborers. Populations of color. Children. “Insects.” “Plagues.” “Viruses.” “Pests.” And the rhetoric of genocide has already been normalized for the population at large over the past few years. Make it abnormal: we are running out of time.
“Insects.” “Plagues.” “Viruses.” “Pests.” This is the language of genocide. This is the language of genocide. This is the language of genocide.
I don’t know how many times to repeat that before, if at any point, that fact becomes clear. I can’t escape it. I’m unsure why, or how, you can.
To ignore the precarity of contingent lives most at risk from the Coronavirus Pandemic, well…such willful blindness makes us all the Lieutenant Governor of Texas. Calling for human sacrifice. But that myopic, comfortable-but-bored-in-quarantine-life? It’s much worse than the remarks of Dan Patrick.
Because the sacrifice we unthinkingly demand (worse: expect) comes without malice. This genocide isn’t the “voluntary” sacrifice of beloved grandparents. For, you see, this isn’t a question of benevolent elders dying to save the young. And it’s not the elderly but everyone “not us.” This is a casual genocide.
Unfolding – and ignored – in real time.
And you—are you a carrier of a more insidious virus than Corona—and you don’t even know it? If you don’t care about these vulnerable populations because the pandemic isn’t “personal” yet, well… you will. Because it’s going to get personal. May others you do not know find some empathy to spare for you. For us all.
It’s already happening. According to the WHO, one of the most urgent threats comes not from the virus itself, but from “chronic global shortage of personal protective equipment.” I learned a few days ago from an epidemiologist in Wichita, Kansas that hospitals have begun issuing directives to staff: avoid wearing scrubs in public. Nurses and doctors are facing attacks in the street. The vulnerable are no longer Syrian refugees, “poisoned Skittles” – but the upwardly mobile healthcare workers of the most affluent nation on earth.
There is no inside or outside anymore. Just where we are. And what we do while we are here.
Suheir Hammad, Letter to Anthony (Critical Resistance)
Viruses don’t give a fuck about skin color or the nation-state’s borders. Corona does not respect the stamps of a passport restricting or allowing entry across the borders of these fallacious nation-states, earning the titles of initial geographic appearance. Disease control does not conform to the game of political expedience. But the viral genocide does; the game of geopolitics thrives on the market value of fear, and the currency of a xenophobic plague, weaponized. Perhaps we will wait, too, for that vaccine… forever.
Genocide doesn’t suddenly appear, marching in alongside the goose-stepping of jackboots. Genocide is delivered through the apathy of the bystander.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Or…fuck it. Do. Some things are worth the bullet.
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