The Prison States

The twentieth century has passed and the world has changed. The great evil of the period can perhaps be assumed to have mutated and changed, too. That era’s gravest sin and greatest threat, totalitarianism, seems less evident today, and its equivalents are assumed to have updated their methods.

When fearing for the future, journalists and analysts fear an authoritarian tide powered by modern methods. They deplore what they expect to see: a high-tech tyranny, rather than the mechanisms powering twentieth-century totalitarianism. They see disinformation propelled through new methods of communication, interference in other nations’ elections, and broader political crises stoked by polarisation, not to mention more novel and exciting threats such as, for example, cyberterrorism.

These new problems are not imagined, and there is value in taking them seriously. But the pursuit of novel things to fear risks obscuring truths about authoritarian states that it would be better not to forget. Amid a global scene in which new exciting threats proliferate, some states commit crimes in the old ways: through destructive indiscriminate warfare, possibly, but more notably behind the semi-legitimate veil of mass imprisonment.

It is more than three years since the New Yorker published a startling and concerning investigation into the torture and cruelty which pervades the prison system in Syria. Last month, the New York Times published its own assessment of the same. The details do not bear repeating, but they are vicious, and their effect is wrenching.

These reports are in part shocking not because of what they contain, but because each time the details of Syria’s prisons are aired, they are met with the revulsion normally reserved for something previously undocumented and unsuspected.

But at least for Syria, these crimes have been extensively alleged and are established by much evidence. We have photographs of the dead; we have death certificates. Descriptions of torture and summary violence, including rough, random execution have seen wide circulation. When it wanted to draw attention to the Assad regime’s immorality, the United States government noted the large, industrial strength crematoria which have been constructed by the regime in their prisons. Its implication, of mass killing followed by mass cremation – like the others – fell short of galvanising popular revulsion.

The New York Times’ recent reporting represent the paper’s latest attempt to interest its readers in crimes known to have been committed, which are nonetheless ongoing.

No uniquely modern trickery is needed to sustain and conceal these crimes. Just the capacity to repress and imprison. Amid more innovative threats, prison camps appear almost antiquated.

The same thing applies least as obviously to the Chinese government’s million-housing internment camps in Xinjiang province and the North Korean prison camp system, the latter of whose depravities effectively defies description.

All of this is not forgotten; it is spoken about just about enough not to fall from view entirely. But there is a tacit understanding that states which are already prisons need no discussion of the real prisons of brick and steel which exist within them – and this is a grave problem, which has become a moral blind-spot, especially when other aspects of the same societies are given greater attention.

When discussing the power and potential threat of China, analysts appear to pay closer attention to the high-tech: its Orwellian ‘social credit scores’, widespread use of facial recognition technology, and its involvement – at a global level – in state-abetted companies such as the tech giant Huawei, and state involvement in building foreign systems such as Britain’s 5G network. When discussing concern felt over North Korea, its nuclear programme ranks first, followed by its conventional forces, followed latterly by more novel methods, such as recent apparent forays into cyberwarfare.

In neither case are the millions of imprisoned afforded much contemplation. Perhaps this is due to the sense that, in being born within such a system, they are consigned to the system’s punishments, cannot be helped in any case, and are therefore best not considered.

But these crimes, though not in view, have their effects. The people imprisoned and tortured, who suffer directly, present one obvious consequence. But another follows as naturally as the feeling elicited by knowledge of these practices. Some people care greatly; among diaspora communities, the passing interest of others is taken as evidence of widespread hatred and indifference. And when radical forces seek to find material evidence that their people are despised and forgotten, and that more direct means are the only way of acting against the evil they see all around, the prison states and the fates of their victims will not be far to reach.

As Islamist groups in the West made much of the genocide in Bosnia, their successor organisations note the crimes of Assad and the indifference with which they are received. Some see the actions of the Chinese state in Xinjiang as part of a global war against Muslims in which the rest of the world is complicit. In a ‘war on terror’ guise, this is something the Chinese government is also willing to imply.

Allowing tyranny to continue its repression in the old style while worrying extensively about the new risks missing something under our noses: the oppression of real people, and the real consequences of allowing that oppression to go on unaddressed.

This piece was originally published at Perspectives, the Quilliam journal.

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