Immigrants aren't deadly. Fox News' lies are.
The only thing in danger of going viral outside Trump's concentration camps is genocidal rhetoric
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“Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology,” a Protection Squad chief once said. It’s easy to see why that’s an appealing idea. We like to think of health as something that exists outside of politics—a purely scientific concern that comes ahead of any other. After all, if you don’t have your health, what else can you have?
That’s the chord Tammy Bruce was trying to strike on Fox Business this morning when she told host Stuart Varney that immigrants have to be stopped because of their supposed threat to public health:
It is an invitation for more mass immigration into this country, certainly also by people who are not well, and considering --
Oh that's right. ‘If you're sick, come on in.’
Look, we've got potential pandemics emerging, right? Diseases, infectious diseases that we thought we had quelled, we did not. Ebola is reemerging. There's general health issues, of course overall, and of course, these are the messages that will not be delivered, so the people who are targeted with these messages are going to be abandoned. This is the chaos and the recklessness of the messages of today's Democratic Party, not just for American citizens but for people around the world who do dream to come to this country, who we want here, but not in a framework of chaos, where everyone will be abandoned and the system itself will collapse.
Two problems immediately stand out with Bruce’s warning. The first is that it is complete and utter bullshit.
There is no evidence that immigration spreads disease. One recent study in The Lancet found that immigration makes arrival countries healthier. Another review of European studies found that the “risk of transmission” of diseases from refugees and asylum seekers to local populations “is very low”—in fact, that what little risk exists is borne almost entirely by the refugees themselves, on account of being forced to live in squalid conditions.
It doesn’t even make sense as a claim. Tens of millions of people visit the United States every year from all over the world, not counting the U.S. citizens who travel or live abroad. Air, ocean currents, mosquitoes, and migrating animals don’t pass through customs. Even at using the most exaggerated administration estimates, the hundreds of thousands of people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t even a statistical drop in the bucket. It is literally xenophobia: an irrational fear of foreigners.
The other problem is even worse. Trump, Bruce, the whole team at Fox News and their fellow xenophobes are tapping into an extremely dangerous history. That quotation about lice and ideology was delivered by Heinrich Himmler in 1943 to officers of his Protection Squadron—Schutzstaffel in German, better known as the SS. Here’s more of it:
Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, 'but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.
Yeah, I’m going there. Here’s the deal.
The Long Version
In 1996, Gregory Stanton, a State Department official, presented a briefing paper about the road to genocide. As an aid worker in Cambodia, he had witnessed the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 genocide and worked to bring its leaders to justice. He’d recently won the American Foreign Service Association’s W. Averell Harriman Award for speaking out as the U.S. stood aside during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Stanton ultimately laid out ten stages that he’d found societies followed en route to systematic mass murder. These ten did not have to go in order and often overlapped. They are “predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it,” he wrote. You can read all of them here.
The fourth stage is “Dehumanization,” in which “one group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases.” By labeling a population as an inherent physical threat—a parasite, carrying infection and impurity—it’s easier to marginalize the victims, or get the public’s support in carting them off to camps. It can prepare them for worse. “Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder,” Stanton noted.
But that doesn’t just happen on its own: “At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radio is used to vilify the victim group.”
Coincidentally, Fox News debuted the same year Stanton presented his report.
It’s an old story. Rwanda’s notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines mixed comedy, popular music, and hate propaganda to build an audience in the years before the genocide. Its hosts frequently referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” “If this disease is not treated immediately, it will destroy all the Hutu,” one broadcast announced.
A century earlier across Africa, the German physician Eugen Fischer studied the Herero and Namaqua peoples being imprisoned in Germany’s first concentration camps, in what is now Namibia. Fischer performed experimental sterilizations and injections of smallpox, tuberculosis, and typhus. His unscientific findings helped justify the deadly conditions, which led to the deaths of nearly half of the people in the camps. Fischer later convinced the German government to ban interracial marriage and helped found the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, which trained the Nazi medical corps and collaborated with Josef Mengele.
The Nazis frequently linked their victims with disease. One of the most striking examples was the way they dealt with typhus, a potentially deadly fever-causing disease most often spread by lice. Posters, like the one above, warned occupied Poles of the danger of “Jew-Louse-Spotted Typhus.”
In 1941, an outbreak occurred in the Lwow Ghetto in Poland. It had clearly been caused in large part by the overcrowding, food and water shortages, and filthy conditions in which the imprisoned Jews—many of them Poles, others stripped of their German citizenship—were forced to live. As the health journalist Arthur Allen wrote in his book on the episode, the Nazis chose to treat the epidemic by submitting Jews to dangerous and humiliating delousing baths during which officers would often rob their apartments. Anyone who tried to escape the ghetto would be shot.
At a conference, one Nazi health official suggested improving the conditions. Perhaps the government could cut down on escape attempts by just giving the Jews more food? Jost Walbaum, chief medical officer for Poland, rejected the idea: “We have one and only one responsibility, that the German people are not infected and endangered by these parasites.” There’s no need to ask if he meant Jews or lice. After decades of messaging, to him, they were the same.
“The day we arrived, my baby became sick. She could not open her eyes and had a fever which got much worse during the day. I asked the guard for help and he told me to ‘just deal with it.’ I asked for help again, and was ignored. The third time I asked, I was crying because she was so much worse I was very worried for her. After two days, they took her to the doctor.”
That’s what a young girl told volunteer attorneys during a welfare visit to a Texas Customs and Border Patrol facility this month. Her story wasn’t unique. Another said:
“Three days ago my baby soiled his clothes. I had no place to wash the clothes so I could not put them back on my baby because when he went to the bathroom his poop came out of his diaper and all over his clothing.”
And a 16-year-old girl:
“We slept on mats on the floor and gave us aluminum blankets. They took our baby’s diapers, baby formula, and all of our belongings. Our clothes were still wet and we were very cold, so we got sick.”
Dehumanization creates a vicious cycle. The guards don’t see their victims as human, so they deprive them of basic human needs. The victims get sicker. This seems to prove, as it once did to Eugen Fischer, the fictitious link between “undesirables” and disease. Observers, already being barred from the camps, have yet another reason to be kept—or choose to stay—away. Those looking to justify the mass internment get another talking point. The victims become hostages, bargaining chips to demand more resources for the camp system. The crisis grows.
Just as with the larger issue of the concentration camps, none of this is a prediction that Trump and Fox News’ messaging will necessarily lead to mass murder. Nothing is inevitable.
But Trump clearly believes dehumanizing his victims will ensure he stays in power. And why not: It’s how he got where he is. The notorious germaphobe has repeatedly and falsely blamed the immigrants he doesn’t like (dark-skinned ones, not Norwegians) for bringing “large-scale crime and disease.” His officers have gone on Fox News to repeat the lie.
It’s one of his favorite things. Back in 2014, just as he was riding the racist birther conspiracy theory to political fame, Trump helped stoke public panic by lying about the West African Ebola outbreak and calling for the borders to be sealed:
Back then, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to take the time to explain why closing the borders would be stupid. “Isolating countries won’t keep Ebola contained and away from American shores. Paradoxically, it will increase the risk that Ebola will spread in those countries and to other countries, and that we will have more patients who develop Ebola in the U.S.”
He added, quaintly perhaps: “It’s simply not feasible to build a wall—virtual or real—around a community, city, or country.”
Trump wasn’t alone in his messaging, then as now. He was informed by, and his voice was boosted by, Fox News.
As Stanton wrote in his guide, genocide is not inevitable. One of the key steps to short-circuiting its process is combating hate speech:
Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Leaders who incite genocide should be banned from international travel and have their foreign finances frozen. Hate radio stations should be shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.
As Twitter and Facebook mods, and ref-workers across the right will immediately tell you: that sounds a lot like curbing free speech. But having seen what he had seen in Rwanda and Cambodia, Stanton got ahead of that critique: “In combating this dehumanization, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech.” That is, Genocide Watch allows, easier to determine in “genocidal societies” which “lack constitutional protection for countervailing speech, and should be treated differently than democracies.”
But then, one of the ongoing challenges of the Trump era is deciding which type of society we are.
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