What We Can Learn From The Abusers In Detention Centers

This isn’t just red meat for conservatives. There is something much deeper going on.

There is a narrative floating around out there that says that if we punish immigrants enough for being so foolish as to come to our borders seeking asylum, that they will just naturally go to some other country for help. I’ve seen and read enough articles to see this narrative in full bloom. On the surface, it seems logical to some that we would want to reduce the incentives that immigrants have to come here, for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So many pixels have been spilled on the lack of clean hands here in the United States. Some of us are well aware that our interventionist foreign policy has made life so inhospitable in other countries, that migrants come here, to the source of their misery in hopes of escaping it. We know that America lacks clean hands to complain about the influx of migrants to our borders and shores. So I won’t delve too deeply there.

But I have to pause when Alexandria Occasio-Cortez compares our detention centers for migrants to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. I have to pause when a reporter, Peter Mass from The Intercept, who has visited the detention centers of Bosnia, where so many people have been tortured and killed, feels compelled to write an article advising us on what we could learn from comparing the Bosnian detention centers to ours. That comparison is not pretty.

AOC is right about the definition of concentration camps being a place where people are held indefinitely without trial. Those people are being held against their will without trial. Peter Mass is right that we could learn a lot from the behavior of the people who ran the detention centers in Bosnia to the people who run the detention centers within our borders.

Peter Mass is right to point out how abuses are being obscured in our detention centers, how reporters are not allowed to see the abused, how reporters are not allowed to talk to the abused, and how reporters are not allowed to take pictures of the abused. He is right to point out that inhabitants at American detention centers are being denied sanitation, soap, and toothpaste. He is right to point out how the men and women who are running the detention centers are hiding abuses and sneaking around.

This is what I want to write about. This hiding and sneaking around. This supposed authority to punish others for having the temerity to come to America to avoid the results of American foreign policy mistakes.

Some of us may remember what it felt like to be confronted by an angry parent for our mistakes. Who could forget the adrenaline of being confronted for breaking something of value, by accident or intent, that belonged to one of our parents? Who could forget the shot of adrenaline that comes from making a mistake that will surely be reprised with punishment in the form of spanking, grounding (detention without trial), or confiscation of some treasure we received on Christmas day as punishment for our crimes as children? I didn’t forget. But I wonder if the so-called leaders in the Trump Admnistration remember.

There is a long series of books written by Alice Miller, famed psychologist of the 1980s. Miller wrote books like, For Your Own Good, The Drama of the Gifted Child, and Breaking Down the Walls of Silence. There is a common theme to be found in her books when she talks about dictators and authoritarian leaders. People with authority who abuse other people impose the fate of their childhood on their victims. They do this unconsciously, often without clear memories of what happened to them in childhood.

Adolf Hitler imposed the fate of his childhood upon his victims. Nicolae Coucescu imposed the fate of his childhood upon his victims. Miller goes on at length in her books to show this side of authoritarian leaders. In every case when people punish other people, they do so because the feelings and circumstances feel familiar. We are the sum of what we know.

So when I read of people in our detention centers being told that they can drink water from the toilets, what information are the people who run those centers acting upon? When I read of authorities force-feeding men in a detention who were on a hunger strike to protest their detention for so long, I wonder what experience they must be acting upon. When I read of children dying in these detention centers, I wonder about the people who run these detention centers. What are they thinking? Certainly, they are not thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I suggest that people who impose suffering upon others are suffering themselves. Often, people who impose suffering upon others are unaware of their own suffering. Often, people who impose suffering upon others feel a surge of adrenaline while imposing that suffering. This is a familiar feeling to the sadists. Yes, the men and women who are running the detention centers, all the way up to the president, are sadists. Respondeat superior, I say. Let the master answer.

This is a cycle of abuse that has been going on for a long, long time. Long before Trump. Long before we even built detention centers. This has been going on for centuries. What starts the cycle of abuse? Child abuse. The idea that children are property. The idea that children should be seen and not heard.

The people who perpetrate abuses in the detention centers are familiar with abuse and feel justified in their actions or they wouldn’t participate in the abuse. They learned how to act and the feelings they experience while abusing others, from someone. Most likely, they learned those feelings from their parents. I can’t think of a better explanation.

This is what I think about when I read accounts of abuses in our detention centers, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and even in our prison system. These people are creating hell on earth, with pretended authority to impose punishment on others. If they believe in the God of the Bible, and I suspect that many of them do, their reading must be very selective. For God said, “Vengeance is mine.”

If we want to stop creating hell on earth, the place to stop that cycle is to stop child abuse anywhere and everywhere we see it. We can read books and follow scientists who study human behavior. A good place to start is Raising Human Beings by Ross W. Greene. Now there is a man who is bringing peace to the world by teaching us that people present challenging behavior when they lack the skills or capacity to respond proactively to their environment. If they could do better, they would.

With 40 years of experience, Dr. Greene has proven that punishment does not work. What works? Teaching the skills that people need for a better response to the demands of their lives. Instead of punishing the migrants who come here, we should be teaching them the skills they need to for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We should also be teaching those same skills to the men and women who run the detention centers.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store