Beware the Minivan
In her report on the trial of the Nazi death camp commander Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, political theorist Hannah Arendt discusses “the banality of evil” — among them, the external ordinariness of the individuals and the tools they used to commit atrocities. Throughout the modern age, certain models of cars have come to be identified with secret police and the disappearance of dissidents, plucked off the streets or dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. The black Zis-110 in 1950s Hungary and the green Ford Falcon during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-1983) were mass-produced vehicles commonly used to disappear enemies of the regime.
In recent days, protestors and others near sites of demonstrations against police brutality in Portland, Oregon, have reported that men in camo with no identifying information beyond a patch reading “POLICE” have black-bagged (covered the faces of) and dragged some dozen people into minivans. The unidentified security forces have driven their prisoners around for a while and either released them elsewhere or taken them to a federal facility where they were questioned and released after they refused to speak without an attorney present. Days of digging revealed that these federal forces came from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol, with reinforcements from the Federal Bureau of Prisons — the same forces that patrolled Washington, D.C. in early June and cleared Lafayette Park of peaceful protestors to enable the president’s infamous Bible photo op. When questioned, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf admitted the presence of these federal troops, stated that they would remain despite local authorities’ request for them to leave because they were escalating the protests, and promised they would be used in other cities. Because state and local authorities from Democratic-controlled Oregon asked them to leave and they didn’t, they are currently an occupying force. Without any identification or probably cause for their “arrests,” they are essentially kidnappers. How does a person dragged into a random minivan by unknown, unidentified person know that this is an officer of the law, a member of a far-right militia (of which there are many in the Portland area), or a criminal gang seeking ransom?
Is the humble minivan, for decades the laughingstock of the suburban dad, the new Zis-110 or the Ford Falcon? As the government of the United States slides into regime territory, and protestors become dissidents, it certainly fits into the “banality of evil” paradigm. So far, this secret police force has not left Portland, nor have the protests abated. In fact, as state and local authorities predicted, they have escalated. At this point, the rest of us are free to decry the latest developments. And we must, because if we go silent, we will no longer have the democracy that we have enjoyed and taken for granted.
It’s not too late. We are not yet Hong Kong, forced to scrub our online presence, change what we write and say, or look for other places to live. But we have to speak out more forcefully than ever, in whatever way we can. Whether or not everything hangs on the election in November, we have to assume it does and make sure the vote is free and fair, and that all of us know this isn’t a normal election between two candidates, but a choice, in the words of the renegade Republicans who founded The Lincoln Project, between Trump and “America.”
Update: Hours after I wrote this post, The Lincoln Project uploaded a new ad making the same points in graphic-novel style. Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself here.
You always do such an amazing job with historical context, Lyn. Thank you for this insightful post.
Thank you! The most disconcerting historical thing about this post is that when I went to find my photo of the model of the Dirty War House that I exhibited as part of an Amnesty International show in the Netherlands years ago, it was in a piece from December 2016 titled “Lost Your Democracy? How Long Will It Take to Get It Back?”