I don’t usually find myself wishing a near-future dystopia was more dystopian, but in this case my main impression of INTERNMENT was of an optimism that I myself don’t feel.
There are several characters in this book who are military, who are prison camp guards, who turn out to be heroic characters who help our main character survive and overcome simply because they believe in American ideals. They’re so heroic that at one point they refuse unlawful orders from a superior officer, to his face, calmly explaining that no, they’re not going to rough up a prisoner because she’s a minor and because the Geneva Conventions and because they didn’t join the National Guard to become prison guards and so on.
If only this was how people behaved in the real world. I was left thinking that although Ahmed has done research, the book would have benefitted from more firsthand experience. The truth is that National Guardsmen are soldiers, and American soldiers often work as prison guards, more or less. In Iraq, National Guardsmen tortured and raped and murdered in Abu Ghraib prison; in Afghanistan, they hold people without trial indefinitely in Bagram Air Base, which isn’t American soil and so isn’t under the jurisdiction of American courts. There are no habeus corpus rights in Guantanamo.
And anyway, people employed as prison guards don’t start out cool with the abuse. That’s the whole problem: you can put good people to work in this system and bit by bit they will become less good, as the work of controlling other humans wears away at their souls. The soldiers in this book have somehow stayed shiny and new, and it just felt a little... naïve.
I was also discouraged by the plot. The idea that the horrors of internment comes down to the ego of one man who can be skewered on camera and forced to back down by the moral weight of the society gazing on him is appealing. It’s also wishful thinking. There is no one single person whose defeat will close the camps. I was at the Northwest Detention Center this last weekend, at a family support event that turned raucous when right wing YouTube agitators showed up openly carrying firearms. Police had heard about it in advance, and were out in force in their riot gear. We anti-fascists were the only ones without guns. We were armed with cardboard signs and bubble wands and some cold water and fresh apples for people who showed up to visit family incarcerated inside.
I wish there was just one Big Bad we could focus on, but the truth is that there are millions of Americans who are pleased that there are prison camps in our country. We are already worse than the dystopia in this book. I think maybe we always were.
n.b. I read an advance reader copy to see if we can approve this for the youth jail library. This book does not contain excessive violence, and there are no mentions of suicidal ideation. There are extensive plans for escaping from prison and circumventing the mechanisms of incarceration. Although the author shows little knowledge of the actual mechanics of a jail, and her plots would not work IRL, the fact of planning may mean this book can’t be approved.