What does it mean to lock a human being up in a cage?
There are many reasons for—and many ways to accomplish the act of—herding men, women, and children beyond a boundary of metal from which they cannot cross back. This metal boundary is not a pleasant thing, like a lavish gate to a country mansion or a protective wall enclosing a resort compound. There is no agency with which one can come and go. This metal boundary serves to deprive the people within of the choice to leave. Here, they are forced to work, locked away in the dark for months, beaten, and abused, physically, emotionally, and sexually. There are heroic stories of interned individuals escaping (there is a reason why the prison break genre of fiction is so popular), but the exceptions prove the rule.
By and large, there is no greater power imbalance than between two groups of people found on opposite sides of a metal boundary. When one group imposes deprivation of autonomy upon another, tragedies are inevitable. This is the central concern of religious leaders, activists, and ethicists who decry the rationales given for ignoring human rights through mass internment and the conditions in which people are held.
Governments usually claim valid and sound reasons for imprisoning large sections of society. There is an official rationale for the Chinese government’s approach to the issue of nationalism and incidents of terror attacks in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which has led to the internment of many hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people in so-called “re-education” camps. These camps were formally highlighted in a report submitted to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in August 2018. Similarly, there is an official rationale presented for the policies of the US government, whose detention facilities hold illegal migrants and refugees caught crossing the US-Mexico border. Both situations have drawn widespread international criticism.
As the world’s largest economies and most influential political powers, the ethical repercussions of these acts of mass internment are particularly severe. It is incumbent on the world powers of our age—economic and military giants that touch every part our modern lives—to remember that history never looks kindly on political entities that intern large segments of society, whatever justifications are given at the time.
Taken in hindsight, events such as the Stalinist gulags, imperial Japan’s treatment of Chinese and Allied civilian prisoners and prisoners of war, the Japanese-American internments of 1942–46, and of course the Nazi concentration and death camps are looked upon with shame and regret. Notably, in every case study of internment the program is initiated and sustained by a major political, economic, and military power. Camps demand considerable funding, infrastructure, and manpower, as well as a political narrative that often crosses national boundaries. By the time a large and influential nation interns a group of people, everything is already in place and primed to be committed: the money, the land and facilities, and, most importantly, the ideological justification. In every instance, scholars, society at large, and popular culture have condemned these periods of history.
Neither national concerns nor political incentives provide the full picture of the internment process and other forms of extra-judicial impounding. A lack of empathy on its own is not the full answer. As psychologist Paul Bloom argues, while dehumanization—a failure to appreciate or a conscious attempt to nullify the humanity of the “Other”—plays an important role, he also notes: “A lot of the cruelty we do to one another, the real savage, rotten, terrible things we do to one another, are in fact because we recognize the humanity of the other person. We see other people as blameworthy, as morally responsible, as themselves cruel, as not giving us what we deserve, as taking more than they deserve. And so we treat them horribly precisely because we see them as moral human beings.” (Vox)
Framed from another angle, it is commonly argued that people treat others cruelly or horribly because they lack an appreciation for or knowledge of the Golden Rule—the ancient maxim that we should treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. However, most people who hold detestable opinions about the Other will pay fealty to the Golden Rule and may even protest that they practice it. Critically, they do not see certain people as morally deserving of the Golden Rule—who do not deserve to be treated how they would wish to be treated.
This toxic mindset requires an active and sustained construction—and reinforcement—of a specific view of the world and of others. As David Livingston Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England, writes: “We have constructed and disseminated toxic ideologies, ingested mind-altering drugs, and engaged in powerful collective rituals, all for the sake of disinhibiting aggression and directing it against our neighbors.” (Aeon) Dehumanization, therefore, plays one part, but an equally important culprit is our moralization of the Other into an essential (in the Aristotelian sense of having an essential nature) agent of evil who needs to be subjugated or destroyed.
In other words, it is not even that we treat people as we might animals or objects, which is a common narrative used to explain mass human internment. It is that we see them as morally responsible parties who made a free choice to deserve their internment. Even the psychopath recognizes that animals or inanimate objects cannot experience the spiritual assault of incarceration as an attack on their moral guilt. In a sense, it is a mass-scale reworking of the self-justifying refrain: “You made me abuse you.” There is no negating the Other’s humanity, at least how it is usually understood; instead it is the very humanity of the Other that is upheld as the problem.
The Other obviously cannot accept this treatment or acquiesce to the reasoning. A final perverse component of internment ideology is interpreting the Other’s refusal to acknowledge their “guilt” as a moral offence that confirms their moral repugnance. It is a circular dogma made in bad faith. One does not need to look far in the today’s news headlines for examples.
History is the best teacher in the midst of environments and circumstances that distort our perceptions of each other’s humanity. It is vital to bear witness to historical consciousness and memory so that these dark paths can be avoided or, at least, turned back from. Many political factors are voiced in the ongoing debate; nations are flawed and must deal in realpolitik all the time. However, in the search for true national dignity, societies should treasure the value of historical learning and, through learning how past powers have degraded and violated the inherent value of human beings, arrive at more creative and compassionate ways to manage complex problems related to human migration, national cohesiveness, and human rights.