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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based political commentator and author of The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

Under the direction of Donald Trump and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. government has snatched roughly 2,000 children of asylum seekers from their parents – including an infant girl who was taken from her wailing mother while breastfeeding – and put them in detention camps. They are there for the crime of existing, as migrant children fleeing foreign violence and oppression, in Mr. Trump’s United States.

The boys are being housed in what used to be a Walmart, where they are allowed outside for two hours a day. (No one seems to know where the girls and the babies are.) Mr. Trump’s regime showed the boys’ centre to reporters, highlighting a mural of Mr. Trump – the man responsible for these children losing their families and freedom – plastered on the wall. We’re told by Mr. Trump’s backers to feel good about the conditions of the camp – to cheer that migrants have TV and snacks and video games instead of mothers or fathers or siblings.

The older children scream for their parents, while the babies simply scream.

The littlest ones cannot even tell us who they are. They don’t yet have words. And so we try, in the United States, to find the words for them. To find the words to describe this level of evil, which was both preventable and proclaimed.

This is the platform Mr. Trump ran on, after all: a platform of xenophobia and corruption. This is the culmination of the dictatorial ambitions and dehumanization of immigrants that smug journalists and officials told people to take seriously – but not literally. For Latino immigrants, demonized from the very day Mr. Trump launched his campaign, it was always literally.

Related: Imbroglio over immigration stands as a symbol of multiple aspects of contemporary America

The last 17 months have been a test of how far the administration could push the boundaries of morality and law before an atrocity was mainstreamed. Nuclear weapons have been recast from an existential horror into part of a reality show-style spectacle summit. The sickness is not just caused by Mr. Trump; it also stems from a collective failure of the most powerful, whether elected or not, to call a lie a lie, to label abuse as abuse. Those tasked to check atrocities instead chose to enable them.

“This is not America,” Republican politicians like to say about the imprisoned children, “this is not who we are.” These statements ignore U.S. history – this was the United States for Indigenous children torn from their parents and sent to boarding schools, for African children sold into slavery, for Japanese families held in internment camps. One answer to “it can’t happen here” is “it already happened here” – children have been imprisoned in the United States, albeit selectively, through autocratic policies imposed over centuries by powerful white men upon the non-white and vulnerable.

Another answer to “it can’t happen here” is, of course, “make it stop happening” – an option the GOP can choose to enact, by holding Mr. Trump and officials, who have flagrantly broken the law, accountable for their crimes and striking down their policies. They refuse to do so. They let Mr. Trump choose what the United States is – to make his alternative facts reality, to rewrite laws to suit his needs, since he knows the morally weak will make excuses rather than confront their own complicity.

In 2003, journalist Anna Politkovskaya described the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s rapidly changing Russia, its toxic mix of brutality and lies. “This calendar has no chronology and no external logic,” she wrote. “It has nothing but images tied together of the logic of feelings surrounding this tragedy.” She shrugged off the scorn heaped on her for the sin of compassion and continued to chronicle her country’s agony. “There are people who can analyze this, but few who can sympathize,” she explained. “And since feelings are so rare now, they are the most important thing in my calendar.”

Opinion: The unspeakable cruelty of Trump’s child-migrant camps

A hit was ordered on Ms. Politkovskaya and she was killed in 2006 for speaking out. Her words stopped but the sentiment lingers. Today, we live under an aspiring autocrat who locks up babies who literally cannot speak for themselves. We are confronted with an assault against children so horrifying it is hard to find the words to describe it. But whatever our feelings, they are nothing compared to what migrant children and parents must be going through. Use your words and fight – for families to be reunited, for their rights and for their freedom, for this nation’s blighted soul.

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