[A black helicopter image from the Militia of Montana's conspiracy manual, Enemies: Foreign and Domestic, p. 155]
Now, I understand that people have grave reservations about the government constructing mass detention centers without clear reasons for doing so. They should. (In fact, I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more discussion of it so far. Perhaps because anyone tackling it seriously runs the risk of coming off as an alarmist. )
But some of the responses to this news have been awfully fearful, if well-meaning. I don't think "arrests are coming," but I've always thought it was a good idea to acquaint oneself with fascism and how it works, because you can only effectively combat it if you understand it.
Do I think this is a sign of incipient fascism? No. I only think it's another progression in a trend I've already discussed at length, namely, that conservatives appear (consciously or not) to be laying the groundwork for an eventual outbreak of genuine fascism.
Still, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you can find liberal commenters who take this to the next step, claiming that we're on the verge of mass roundups. Then they begin culling information from far-right conspiracy sites to buttress their positions. There's no small irony in the fact that many of these same conspiracy theorists are themselves part of a far-right fringe that is essentially proto-fascist.
When I first began covering the Patriot/militia movement in 1994, I spent considerable energy chasing down the many and multifaceted claims of the militia leaders. In the process, I became well acquainted with their many conspiracy theories.
Chief among these theories was the claim that the Clinton administration was busy building concentration camps in preparation for a New World Order takeover, in which gun owners would be stripped of their rights and dissenters herded into the camps. They described various camps being built in remote rural locales in the Northwest, including Washington, Montana, and Idaho.
But the militiamen, when pressed, could never pinpoint the actual location of said camps. It was all secondhand information. At least one tip, in northwestern Montana, turned out to be a wildlife-management deer fence. The rest -- nothing.
Probably the leading proponent of these theories was John Trochmann, leader of the Militia of Montana, who I interviewed several times and observed in action a couple of others. I describe some of Trochmann's beliefs in my first book, In God's Country:
- The New World Order, he says, is a shadowy one-world-government group that conspires to put an end to the U.S. Constitution by subsuming it under the "Communist" United Nations. Conspirators include the President, the Speaker of the House, and most financial and political leaders around the world.
The new world government Trochmann envisions would be a population-controlling totalitarian regime. Guns will be confiscated. Urban gangs like the Bloods and the Crips will be deployed to conduct house-to-house searches and round up resisters. Thousands of citizens will be shipped off to concentration camps and liquidated, all in the name of reducing the population.
These claims lingered well through the Y2K panic, which turned out to be a debacle for the militia movement: thousands of obedient Patriot movement followers (many with basements stocked full of beans, rice, generators, and other survival supplies) realized, a few months after the claims of impending apocalypse dissipated into the ether, that they'd been snookered. After that, the survivalist militias largely faded back into the woodwork, though the Patriot movement has continued to resurface in new guises, most recently in the form of the Minuteman Project.
The concentration-camp claims have continued to enjoy a kind of half-life as well. You can still find them on the Web at sites like this one, which offers the standard number of "over 800 camps" that we now see floating around the current claims.
Note some of the camp descriptions:
Minidoka/Jerome Counties - WWII Japanese-American internment facility possibly under renovation. Clearwater National Forest - Near Lolo Pass - Just miles from the Montana state line near Moose Creek, this unmanned facility is reported to have a nearby airfield. Wilderness areas - Possible location. No data.
[The renovations at the Minidoka camp are strictly for purposes of making it into a national monument in commemoration of the internment. The Lolo Pass facility is a Forest Service work camp. As for the wilderness area sites, well ...]
Malmstrom AFB - UN aircraft groups stationed here, and possibly a detention facility.
[There is no detention facility at Malmstrom.]
Seattle/Tacoma - SeaTac Airport: fully operational federal transfer center
Okanogan County - Borders Canada and is a site for a massive concentration camp capable of holding hundreds of thousands of people for slave labor. This is probably one of the locations that will be used to hold hard core patriots who will be held captive for the rest of their lives.
Sand Point Naval Station - Seattle - FEMA detention center used actively during the 1999 WTO protests to classify prisoners.
Ft. Lewis / McChord AFB - near Tacoma - This is one of several sites that may be used to ship prisoners overseas for slave labor.
[The three known facilities listed here all have legitimate purposes as part of the law enforcement or military systems. But the "concentration camp" in Okanogan County is entirely fanciful and does not exist. Nor is there any known project to hold or transport people for slave labor.]
Anyway, you get the idea. None of the so-called detention centers were designed or constructed for that purpose. Certainly there was never any publicly acknowledged program to build them during the Clinton years.
So that's part of what makes the recent announcement of contingency plans to construct mass detention centers for an "immigration emergency" so noteworthy: It marks the first time that such plans have actually been announced by the government in recent years.
Indeed, I can scarcely imagine the apeshit response from the militia contingent had it been Bill Clinton's administration making such an announcement. Not to mention that it certainly would have been headline-worthy to boot.
But then, I recall that the right also used to claim that Clinton was not just building concentration camps, but he was also secretly wiretapping American citizens. That he was assassinating political enemies in secret. That he was remaking the presidency into a virtual dictatorship with limitless powers. All without a smidgen of anything approaching factual evidence.
And now we have a president who really is not just preparing to building mass detention centers, but who has been conducting illegal domestic surveillance, who has claimed the power to order assassinations on American soil, who does appear to be claiming limitless powers as a "wartime" executive. Is it any wonder, really, that people's paranoia meters are running at full blast?
However, the paranoia can obscure the salient issues here, which are (as Tom Hennessy contends): 1) Why is the explanation for the need for constructing the camps so vague? and 2) Why award an open-ended contract that is most likely to just line Halliburton's pockets?
A subsequent New York Times piece carried at least some more details to flesh out an answer to the first question:
- A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jamie Zuieback, said KBR would build the centers only in an emergency like the one when thousands of Cubans floated on rafts to the United States. She emphasized that the centers might never be built if such an emergency did not arise.
"It's the type of contract that could be used in some kind of mass migration," Ms. Zuieback said.
A spokesman for the corps, Clayton Church, said that the centers could be at unused military sites or temporary structures and that each one would hold up to 5,000 people.
"When there's a large influx of people into the United States, how are we going to feed, house and protect them?" Mr. Church asked. "That's why these kinds of contracts are there."
The problem, though, is that these kinds of facilities are so open to abuse -- that is, they're quite readily converted to other purposes, as some immigrant advocates observe later in the piece:
- Advocates for immigrants said they feared that the new contract was another indication that the government planned to expand the detention of illegal immigrants, including those seeking asylum.
"It's pretty obvious that the intent of the government is to detain more and more people and to expedite their removal," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.
Nor is that the only potential area of abuse. These facilities also have a history of being used to deprive citizens of their civil liberties, embodied in the World War II internment camps. Some of the camps' most vociferous progressive critics point this out as well:
- For those who follow covert government operations abroad and at home, the contract evoked ominous memories of Oliver North's controversial Rex-84 "readiness exercise" in 1984. This called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to round up and detain 400,000 imaginary "refugees," in the context of "uncontrolled population movements" over the Mexican border into the United States. North's activities raised civil liberties concerns in both Congress and the Justice Department. The concerns persist.
"Almost certainly this is preparation for a roundup after the next 9/11 for Mid-Easterners, Muslims and possibly dissenters," says Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. military's account of its activities in Vietnam. "They've already done this on a smaller scale, with the 'special registration' detentions of immigrant men from Muslim countries, and with Guantanamo."
Considering these latter points, Ellsberg's fears are at least not groundless, and may prove prophetic.
Where progressives go off the rails is when they pursue theories that the Bush administration has been preparing for martial law and intends to impose it, with these camps being prepared to house civil dissenters. There's simply no evidence to support such a theory -- other than those that were trotted out against Bill Clinton (particularly regarding FEMA orders) in the 1990s, and which proved similarly bogus.
Confronting, and overcoming, the American right's totalitarian impulses requires keeping our heads about us. The last thing that progressives need is to start adopting a conspiracist mindset, watching for the same black helicopters that visited the nightmares of '90s militiamen.
It's important to ask serious questions about the kinds of steps the Bush administration is taking, from the Patriot Act to the NSA surveillance program to the construction of mass detention centers. And they need to be asked seriously, without the taint of wild-eyed charges.
If there is a legitimate need for these preparations, then they should proceed -- but only with complete transparency. The potential for abuse that such facilities create requires real openness on the part of the government, and genuine oversight and accountability. From the outset, that appears not to be the direction this administration is taking.
That doesn't surprise anyone, of course. But it should raise real concerns -- not conspiracy theories.