A short stroll from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue takes you through the Ellipse, across Constitution Avenue and to the newest jewel in the Smithsonian’s crown, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s a safe bet that the White House’s current occupant has never been there, nor is planning to go. Not that it matters: it’s unlikely he would get anything out of the experience, since closed minds don’t open for new ideas.
Perhaps his Cabinet and staff should make the trek, however, or maybe some of the 535 members of Congress down the block who haven’t already done so. If they do, they will learn a great deal about our nation’s imperfect path towards a more perfect union.
Your faithful blogger visited the museum for the first time last week. Of all the many exhibits, artifacts and testimonies it offers, one stood out like a sore thumb: a quote from abolitionist and escaped slave Henry Bibb describing a slave auction. Slave auctions are, of course, among the most exquisite representations of evil in the history of mankind. But this description included a notable detail:
They ordered the first woman to lay down her child and mount the auction block; she refused to give up her little one and clung to it as long as she could, while the cruel lash was applied to her back for disobedience. She pleaded for mercy in the name of God. But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.
Next to the quote was a contemporaneous drawing showing a distraught black woman begging for her child as the auctioneer dangles the baby by its wrist as if it was a piece of meat. The white men surrounding the mother seem oblivious to her plight and those of the other slaves in the room.
It’s possible that when the curators placed this quote and drawing on the museum’s wall, they considered it to be a scene relegated to the dark archives of history. A stark reminder of an evil, cruel past – but just that: the past. Something that would never again happen in America.
It turns out that Karl Marx was wrong: sometimes history repeats itself not as farce but as tragedy.
There’s a lot of rationalizing about the current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of forcibly separating children from their parents at the border and warehousing them in a reconstituted Walmart, among other places, including the use of what could only be described as cages.
We’ve heard the “whataboutism” argument: where was the outrage when the Obama administration placed unaccompanied minors in pens when they came across the border? (Answer: 1. They weren’t ripped from their parents’ arms since they were, by definition, unaccompanied; 2. The holding pens were temporary as the administration grappled with the sudden influx of unaccompanied minors; and 3. There was a lot of outrage: see here, here, and here.)
We’ve been told that the policy is a deterrent to keep families from entering the country. If so, the deterrent doesn’t seem to be deterring. Maybe we need tougher deterrents, like placing artillery guns along the border to mow down any families that try to cross.
We are informed that the administration’s hands are tied: that the law requires them to jail adults and therefore must separate the kids. Except that crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor, crossing the border to seek asylum is not a crime at all, and, besides, following the rules is not really this administration’s strong suit (see, “Clause, Emoluments,” and “Pruitt, Scott,” to name two).
It’s also been explained to use that it’s really the fault of the parents, who chose to bring their kids over the border illegally. We know, of course, that such parents did not have much of a choice, since the only other option was keeping their kids in violent, impoverished communities. And in any event, one man’s choice does not excuse another’s. Ripping families apart is a choice, too.
Likewise, it’s been pointed out to us that the government separates families all the time, when adults with kids are sentenced to prison. Put aside for a moment the risible reality of our nation’s addiction to building and filling prisons that must be the envy of the non-free world; the children of prisoners aren’t being yanked from their parents’ arms far from home without any support system. Most still live in the homes they know, in many cases with another parent or other family members.
Last but not least, we’ve been alerted to the Eternal Truth that the administration’s policy has a Biblical seal of approval. In the same part of the Bible, we suppose, as the commandment giving a free pass for sleeping with porn stars and the psalm about how some white supremacists are actually fine people.
Tellingly, the Bible passage used to defend this policy is the same one that was used to justify slavery. Which brings us back to that quote from the Museum.
No, today’s immigrants were not forced onto slave ships and transported to America against their will. And no, ICE is not selling them or their children into bondage.
But at the core of the zero-tolerance policy lies this inescapable fact: to countenance the forced separation of parents and children denies their fundamental humanity. Look at the auctioneer in that image and try to pretend that he thinks of the young child in his grip as a fellow human being.
To accept the zero-tolerance policy requires you to view the people coming through the border as something less than human. Because no person in his or her right mind would want to see their child stripped from them by strangers in a strange land.
All the rationalizations and false equivalences used to justify this policy ignore the reality that at the heart of any system of laws – from the Ten Commandments to the U.S. Constitution – exists a set of beliefs in how we treat one another, especially those who are the most vulnerable.
As citizens of a democracy, Americans may disagree on the morality of a bevy of issues, from the death penalty to gun control to trade wars. But no society that acquiesces to, much less embraces, the forcible separation of parents from children can claim the moral high ground on anything. Just as a parent would do anything to protect his or her child, so too must a society do all in its power to keep children safe.
That’s why this controversy matters, more than any of the other imbroglios that’ve cropped up since the 2016 election. More than the Russia investigation, more than the withdrawal from international treaties, more than North Korea, more than Obamacare. Because on this question – is it acceptable to rip children from the arms of their parents? – no nation can waver and continue to call itself a civilized society.
We’ve come a long way as a nation from the days when slave auctions were part of the daily commerce. But there’s no guarantee that our society won’t stumble backward unless people stand up and fight. Plenty of “good” societies have drifted into evil, often slowly, imperceptibly.
The policy on separating families does not, in of itself, make us the moral equivalent of history’s most evil cultures. But once a society starts to disregard the fundamental humanity we share, there’s no bottom to the level of inhumanity it will allow.