Over the last few months, officials on the U.S.-Mexico border have begun implementing a deliberate policy of taking children hostage, ripping kids as young as a year old from their parents and removing them into the byzantine world of detention, foster care and who knows where.
Women report their children screaming in terror as strangers forcibly dragged them into vans and then to places unknown.
The clinical lack of concern with the well-being of the children was summed up by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s response to a question about what would happen next. The kids would be “put into foster care or whatever.” He said seizing children and taking them from their parents was intended as a “tough deterrent” against those trying to cross the border.
Kelly is instructing us to ignore the inhumanity, the affront to human dignity; to focus only on procedure. There are unsettling echoes in that statement.
In Case No. 47 in the “Subsequent Nuremberg Trials,” Wilhelm List and other Nazi officers were accused of taking and punishing hostages as reprisals for attacks on Germans and German infrastructure. During the seven-month trial, the Nazi defendants reiterated their defense: “I was only following orders.”
Those sitting in judgment wrote that was no defense at all.
“Implicit obedience to orders of superior officers… implies obedience to lawful orders only. If the act done pursuant to a superior’s orders be murder, the production of the order will not make it any less so. It may mitigate but it cannot justify the crime. … members of the armed forces are bound to obey only the lawful orders of their commanding officers and they cannot escape criminal liability by obeying a command which violates International Law and outrages fundamental concepts of justice.”
Trump has raged against a growing slew of immigrant groups and just last week mused about removing would-be immigrants’ rights to a trial and simply throwing them back over the border. He talks about “animals” and “chain migration” and “breeders,” a language not so far from Hitler’s description of Jews as “bacillus.”
Before there was genocide in Germany, there was a language of systematic dehumanization and a progressive erosion of basic civil rights for Jews and other minorities.
Trump said last week that desperate young kids trying to cross the border are “not innocent.”
His administration, which has long made it a policy to separate husband from wife at the border, has now begun incarcerating asylum seekers en masse – the poor and huddled masses of our troubled age, people with nothing, who walk hundreds of miles, braving rape, robbery and kidnapping in order to reach a land they have been told is generous and empathetic with laws protecting the vulnerable. But they find something else entirely – uniformed officers seizing their young children as if they were property forfeit in a drug raid.
As journalists and immigration rights attorneys have pointed out, this is unprecedented, uncharted territory.
In 2000, when Elián González was returned to his father in Cuba (at the end of a gun), the image catalyzed outrage around the world; it was used to powerful effect by the GOP in Florida as a mobilizing tool against the Clinton administration and against Al Gore’s presidential candidacy that year.
Now, a far worse version is occurring on a daily basis, many times a day, across the borderlands; and instead of the kids being sent back to family members, they are being taken by agents of the U.S. government and placed with strangers.
Last month, The New York Times reported that more than 700 children have been taken, and the roundup has only intensified. Immigrant-rights attorneys believe another 658 children were taken in one 13-day period in May. The administration has even mused about opening disused military facilities to warehouse these unfortunate children.
USA Today reported the government can’t locate some 1,475 children separated from parents since 2017.
These acts are taking America into the darkest, most anti-democratic and cruelest moment in its modern history. We must document these outrages, again and again and again, so the victims will one day be able to seek justice; and our political representatives must make absolutely clear that the men and women who are creating this nightmare will ultimately be held accountable.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, Chief of Staff Kelly all can say they are simply obeying the president’s determination to tighten the border. And the agents who tear children from their parents’ arms can say they are, in turn, simply obeying the orders of their agency chiefs. But at some point, that excuse of “only obeying orders” wears horribly thin.
I suspect a growing number of honorable ICE and border patrol and other government agents involved in carrying out such policies are developing a fiercely bad conscience. I would bet that many find it increasingly hard to sleep and increasingly difficult to rationalize what they are doing.
I suspect many of these men and women feel deep shame at what their government, in our names, is asking them to do.
When the government embraces terror against particular groups, whether or not we work for that government, we must all say “not in my name.” If we don’t, if we acquiesce or turn a blind eye, then as a culture, a democracy, we go silently into the dark, lethal night of totalitarianism.
Sasha Abramsky teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He wrote this for The Sacramento Bee. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.