By David K. Shipler
Making America Cruel Again: Part 1 of an occasional series
It was sadly appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use a biblical verse once cited by some slave owners to justify cruelty to other human beings who were considered less than human: by Sessions about separating children from parents who enter the US illegally and “infest” the country (President Trump’s word, reducing them to insects and rodents), and by planters about returning fugitive slaves to their rightful place in bondage. It was the law, after all. Romans 13:1.
Not that ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms is slavery—although slavers did so when profit and efficiency dictated. And not that the US is perpetrating “genocide” or acting like Nazis, as some critics have said, reaching for the most dreadful terms to harness their disgust and shame at the behavior of their beloved country.
But the outrages being perpetrated on the Mexican border signify the resurrection of practices and hatreds that might have seemed long buried in history if you were one of those citizens who believed America was destined to become better and better: more welcoming of difference, more just, more decent, more humane. How naïve of those of us who fostered such faith in their beloved country.
Nasty attitudes and impulses from the worst dimensions of America’s past are resurfacing as if they had merely hibernated waiting for the oxygen and sunlight of demagoguery to nurture them back into thorny bloom. And our past is replete with unsavory precedents: slavery, of course, and racist law in the form of Jim Crow; Native American families torn apart as authorities tried to stamp out tribal culture; citizens of Japanese descent interned during World War II; explicit anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
We have not yet succumbed to the most damaging elements of our historical psyche, but we are getting there. We have already lost something precious—and so quickly! Through the strange, sick man we elected our president, we cozy up to dictatorships and feud with pluralistic democracies, we care nothing for human rights either at home or abroad, we no longer stand tall in the world for liberty. We are no beacon, except to hate-mongers and autocrats. We are at risk of becoming an ash heap of slogans and lies, nursing grudges and generating lonely antagonisms.
There is no empathy in Trump that has been visible, and none apparent in all of the cringe-producing steps by him and his accomplices. The impression is given that empathy is a synonym for weakness, that it stands in juxtaposition to self-interest. That is not always the case, however. The two do not inevitably form a dichotomy, and it’s easy to see where empathy and self-interest overlap.
Take the forced separation of children from parents whom the Justice Department now chooses to charge criminally with illegal entry. (Contrary to what Trump has said, the law does not require that criminal charges be brought; the statute permits such action, but most illegal aliens have routinely been processed by the administrative immigration system, which can detain whole families together pending deportation or release them and summon them later to appear in immigration court.)
Psychiatrists, pediatricians and others who have studied the brain’s response to stress paint a devastating picture of trauma in children who are forcibly separated from their parents. “Their heart rate goes up,” wrote William Wan in a Washington Post report on experts’ findings. “Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites—the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and—especially in young children—wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.”
The effects can be lifelong. And children in such situations are more susceptible to the appeal of belonging to a group other than family—a gang, for example. How it’s in our self interest to generate more gang members, or do long-term harm to children who might very well end up staying in the US, is a question you’ll have to ask the White House. Here, empathy and self-interest coincide.
Further, when the Bush administration stepped up criminal prosecutions of adults entering illegally, without minor children, the US Attorneys’ offices in border states were so overwhelmed that they couldn’t prosecute other crime as vigorously, including violent crimes. The same problem will surely be created now, even though federal judges are accepting guilty pleas from dozens of illegal immigrants at once. If you’re in criminal court, you get a lawyer at government expense; not so in immigration court. So public defenders, who are usually swamped with work, will now be inundated to the point where they will not be able to provide adequate counsel in ordinary criminal cases.
The long-term costs to upstanding US citizens of short-sighted government policies could make a very long list. Inadequate health insurance, for example, forces people to use hospital emergency rooms as clinics, driving up costs for everyone. Inadequate food stamps and housing subsidies force families into patterns of inadequate nutrition, which can impair brain development in fetuses and young children. Cognitive impairment from early childhood leads to learning disabilities, failure in school, flawed labor skills that damage the economy, and criminal behavior that victimizes innocent citizens and costs huge amounts for prisons.
Aside from being morally right, empathy can also serve our self-interest. Is it naïve to believe that the next time around, enough voters will get it?