During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump gave full-throated support for resurrecting the Bush administration’s regime of torture for terror detainees. But Trump’s brand of state-sanctioned sadism promised to go much further. Trump warned he would seek reprisals against the kin of suspected terrorists, “because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families' lives.” When informed during one GOP debate that his approach would force the United States to abandon the Geneva Conventions, Trump complained, “so they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” The future 45th president of the United States boasted about his plans on Feb. 6, 2016:
“I would bring back waterboarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."
Given that kind of posturing, many fully expected President Trump to resume the torture of detainees by the United States of America. But few could have imagined those detainees would be children. And our national shame is only amplified by Republicans’ defense of the indefensible by redeploying talking points about “summer camps” and “playgrounds” first used to justify the American brutality at “Club Gitmo.”
To be sure, what’s been done to the separated families of undocumented immigrants—many of them asylum-seekers fleeing chaos and carnage in Central America—is tantamount to torture. As Karen Greenberg wrote in late June, “First, there were the most visible signs; above all, the children being placed in wire cages that, as journalists and others who saw them attested, looked more like holding cells for animals at a zoo or dogs at a kennel than for humans, no less children.” But that was only one outward manifestation of the “zero tolerance” policy put in place to ward off those Donald Trump denounced as “animals.”
As at Guantánamo, those children were also being subjected to a regime of intentional abuse. The cruel and inhuman treatment began, of course, with the trauma of separation from their parents and often from their siblings as well, since children of different genders were sent to different facilities (or at least different parts of the same facility). Such policies, according to pediatrician and Columbia professor Dr. Irwin Redlener, a leading authority on public policy and children in harm’s way, amount to “child abuse by the government.” In other words, it all added up to a new form of torture, this time visited upon children.
Asking for Congress and the White House to end the policy of separation, members of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry weighed in on the harm that the trauma of forced separation can cause: “Separating these children from their families in times of stress creates unnecessary and high-risk trauma, at the very time they need care and support the most.” In addition, the “children who experience sudden separation from one or both parents, especially under frightening, unpredictable, and chaotic circumstances, are at higher risk for developing illnesses such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma-induced reactions.” (Ironically, one of the few characteristics Justice Department lawyers in George W. Bush’s administration acknowledged would constitute torture was “prolonged mental harm.” In their words, for severe pain or suffering to amount to torture would require that “the acts giving rise to the harm must cause some lasting, though not necessarily permanent, damage.”)
For the Trump administration, these kinds of outcomes are a feature—not a bug. In March 2017, then-Trump Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly (the same General Kelly once in charge of Southern Command, including the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay) acknowledged his interest in family separation. “Yes, I am considering in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network,” Kelly said, “I am considering exactly that.” But as Commander Jonathan White, the Health and Human Services official who led the agency’s efforts to reunify some 3,000 separated families, told Congress on July 31, “There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” That’s not all White said:
White said that during deliberations before the policy began in April, he raised concerns "about any policy that would result in family separation." He said he was told that "there was no policy that was going to result in family separation."
But by June, that very policy, one made worse by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ guidance that families seeking to escape gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries did not qualify as asylum seekers, was sending the undocumented to federal facilities around the nation. “This,” attorney Meeth Soni said of the federal correction institution at Victorville, California, “is the Guantánamo Bay for asylum-seekers.” Despite its record of abuse, sexual assault, and two deaths, migrant children are still being sent to the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas. Meanwhile at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia, the New York Times reported, troubled youths were often subjected to the “chair” or the “mask”:
Teenagers as young as 14 were strapped to the chair — some stripped down to their underwear — with their feet, arms and waist restrained by cushioned leather straps and loops, they said.
Those who guards feared might spit on staff, said one former worker, got the mask — a mesh hood that covered their entire faces and heads. Sometimes, the detainees said, they were forced to wear it while in the chair.
To most observers, these kinds of conditions and their impact among migrant children sound horrifying. Unless, of course, those observers make their living in conservative political circles.
On June 19, Fox News host Laura Ingraham used air quotes to mock the very idea of “separated children.”
“Consistent with American law, when a party is arrested, your children are either sent to relatives or they become wards of the state. So since more illegal immigrants are rushing the border, more kids are being separated from their parents, and are temporarily housed in what are essentially summer camps.” [Emphasis added]
North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, currently running to unseat Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, doubtless agrees with that assessment. As he explained the day after Ingraham’s remarks about children in “dog cages”:
“Chain-link fences are around playgrounds all over America, all over North Dakota…And the chain-link fences allow line of sight visual connectivity with children and families. There's, you know, there's nothing inhumane about a chain-link fence. If it is, then every ballpark in America is inhumane…
Well, chain-link fence has been used to, as I said, to protect children from predators on playgrounds, baseball diamonds, all kinds of sports courts and whatnot.”
And according to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, “protecting children” is precisely what the Trump administration is trying to do. Just one day after tweeting “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” Nielsen claimed:
“The children are not being used as a pawn, we are trying to protect the children.”
In May, Nielsen’s predecessor at DHS and current Trump chief of staff John Kelly disagreed. Family separation, he explained to NPR, “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.” Far from being “cruel and heartless,” Kelly countered, taking a mother away from her children was no big deal for the kids:
“The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
As for that “whatever,” Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state protested, Secretary Nielsen “made it sound like these kids are somehow in summer camp.” Now, Nielsen didn’t literally say that. But one month later during his July 31 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the top officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did. As the New York Times reported (“Migrant Detention Centers Are ‘Like a Summer Camp,’ Official Says at Hearing”):
Matthew Albence, the acting No. 2 official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described family detention centers set up to shelter migrants as “more like a summer camp.”
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” Mr. Albence said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured.” [Emphasis mine.]
Playgrounds, baseball diamonds, and summer camps. Sounds like fun. A lot of fun. Maybe, except for the part about splitting up parents from children, even like Club Med. Or “Club Gitmo.”
For years, “Club Gitmo” was the go-to defense for Republicans trying to deflect incoming fire aimed at President George W. Bush’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” at United States prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Those techniques didn’t just include the use of waterboarding to simulate drowning. As the 6,300-page Senate torture report later revealed, the spa at Club Gitmo also offered “rectal hydration" and "rape by broomstick."
Just like Club Med. At least according to current Trump attorney general and former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Hoping to block the closure of the tainted detention center and the potential transfer of prisoners by President Obama to facilities within the United States, Sessions in the spring of 2009 deemed Gitmo a "logical site” for terror detainees:
"They wouldn't be treated any better in the United States, and they wouldn't have the tropical breezes blowing through."
As it turns out, Jeff Sessions was just the latest senior Republican to defend the blight of Guantanamo by praising the creature comforts there.
Take, for example, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner. In response to President Obama's January 2009 announcement that he planned to shutter the prison, the Ohio Republican rejected the notion that Guantanamo had given the United States a black eye. To Boehner, the accommodations at Gitmo are figuratively, if not literally, to die for:
"I don't know that there's a terrorist treated better anywhere in the world than what has happened at Guantanamo. It is - we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a facility that has more comforts than a lot of Americans get."
That sound bite made its first appearance in June 2005 in the wake of revelations regarding the torture of Gitmo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani. On June 12, Time published details of an 84-page document spelling out the abuse of Qahtani, treatment including sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity, and prolonged exposure to cold, which left him in a "life-threatening condition." The result, as Americans learned from military commission chief Susan Crawford, is that Qahtani's case could not be referred for prosecution because "his treatment met the legal definition of torture."
The abuse of Qahtani, however, did not meet the Republican definition of torture. As John Boehner, Dick Cheney, Duncan Hunter, Mel Martinez, and Mike Huckabee alike attest, Gitmo is more country club than detention center.
That jaw-dropping assessment was standard fare from the mouthpieces of the right after the 2005 Qahtani revelations. Vice President Cheney announced, "I think people there are being treated far better than they expected to be treated by any other government on Earth." Just how well was explained by California Rep. Duncan Hunter:
"The inmates in Guantanamo have never eaten better, they've never been treated better...the idea that we are somehow torturing people in Guantanamo is absolutely not true, unless you consider eating chicken three days a week is torture."
While Hunter was distributing menus from Guantanamo to reporters as proof, his Florida colleague Mel Martinez worried the U.S. detention facility had "become an icon for bad stories and at some point you wonder the cost-benefit ratio." Still, as Fox News reported:
Martinez has said, however, that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated better there than those in Florida's Orange County jail.
The prison envy American inmates would experience was a point hammered home repeatedly by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. During the Republican presidential primaries in which he and Mitt Romney ("My view is we ought to double Guantanamo") battled to heap praise on Guantanamo, Huckabee declared that prisoners in his state wished they had it so good. After announcing in June 2007 that "most of our prisoners would love to be in a facility more like Guantanamo," Huckabee that December fawned over the creature comforts at Gitmo:
"The inmates there were getting a whole lot better treatment than my prisoners in Arkansas. In fact, we left saying, 'I hope our guys don't see this. They'll all want to be transferred to Guanatanmo.' If anything, it's too nice."
That sentiment was perhaps best expressed in summer 2008 by Sean Hannity and his guest Kyndra Miller Rotunda. Rotunda, a former Judge Advocate General officer at Guantanamo from August 2002 through March 2003, had argued in her book, "to some extent, yes, it is Club Gitmo." And on June 29, 2008, she told Hannity:
"I know there have been a lot of allegations about Guantanamo Bay, but the truth is it's really more like a Boy Scout camp than it is a prison camp."
Amazingly, she continued, "sure there are plenty of allegations of torture in Guantanamo Bay, the problem is there's just no facts to back it up."
As it turned out, there were plenty of facts then as now proving that Gitmo was no summer camp. But when even after the Senate torture report came out, polls largely showed that Americans mostly didn’t care. Even as late as January 2017, a Pew Research Center survey found that Americans were split 49 to 48 percent as to whether there were circumstances under which torture could be acceptable. But while Democrats by 67 to 31 percent said there were “no circumstances in which torture is acceptable,” Republicans went 71 to 27 percent the other way. Those are pretty big differences when it comes to the federal government’s admitted violations of U.S. and international law.
But when its comes to the Trump administration’s now-stalled policy on separating immigrant families, there is no overall cleavage among the American people about “Gitmo for Kids.” The headlines from FiveThirtyEight (“Separating Families At The Border Is Really Unpopular”) and Vox (“Polls: Trump’s family separation policy is very unpopular — except among Republicans”) tell the tale. In a June survey from Quinnipiac University, Democrats (by 91 to 7 percent) and independents (by 68 to 24 percent) hated the policy of prosecuting asylum-seekers immediately and splitting up families. But Republicans support it by a 55 to 35-point margin.
The yawning partisan differences could reflect the belief of many Trump supporters that “these are animals” now “infesting” our country. More charitably, perhaps for the #MAGA crowd, the pain, hardship, and suffering of the children and their parents are just the price to be paid—collateral damage, if you will—in the Trump crusade to further slow the already-decreased flow of Mexicans and Central Americans across America’s southern border. Or maybe these Republicans think that government-sanctioned child abuse, like state-sponsored torture, really is just like a summer camp. Or Club Gitmo.