Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Why isn’t caging kids a line in the sand?

Tents to house unaccompanied migrant children at the Tornillo-Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, as seen Monday in Tornillo, Texas.
Christ Chavez/Getty Images
Tents to house unaccompanied migrant children at the Tornillo-Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, as seen Monday in Tornillo, Texas.

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS, there has been extraordinary and heartbreaking reporting from the US-Mexico border on President Trump’s barbaric family separation policy. But one small anecdote from the Boston Globe’s Liz Goodwin took my breath away.

According to a public defender interviewed by Goodwin, “several of her clients have told her their children were being taken from them by Border Patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath. As the hours passed, it dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.”

This is consistent with other reporting from The Washington Post that recounts parents being told their children were being taken away for questioning and would only “be apart for a moment. But they never came back.”

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What is so disturbing about these stories is the obvious historical analogy to the lies told to European Jews as they arrived at Nazi death camps. To prevent panic, SS guards told families being separated that they would be together again soon — not that their loved ones were being marched to their deaths.

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More than a few observers have made this connection. Over the weekend, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA, posted a picture from a Nazi death camp with the caption “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”

Trump threw more fuel on the fire Tuesday morning in a tweet complaining about illegal immigrants who “pour into and infest our country.”

This is the kind of language that is used to dehumanize “others’’ and has, throughout history, often been a first step toward the use of physical violence against them.

At the same time, however, these types of historical analogies can easily be misused.

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We need to be clear on this point: what’s happening at the border — and the president’s rhetoric — are not remotely similar to the Holocaust. The policy of separating children from their parents is horrific, but it’s not the systematic murder of six million Jews. Such comparisons risk trivializing the enormity and unique nature of the Holocaust.

While historical ignorance certainly plays a role here, there is, nonetheless, a reason why these analogies keep getting made and why, my admonitions notwithstanding, they shouldn’t necessarily be discarded. It represents, I think, an effort to make sense of events that seem unimaginable.

How can public officials act in such a barbaric manner? How can the attorney general of the United States not only defend this policy, but invoke the Bible in upholding it? How can Border Patrol agents and ICE officials lie to mothers and fathers about their children, or forcibly take young kids away from their parents? Don’t these people have children too? Where is their humanity? Frankly, the question I find most disturbing is: Where are the resignations from the bureaucracy in response to a policy that is, from every possible analysis, simply indefensible? How are so many civil servants and political appointees willing to go along with this?

I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions, which is part of the problem. Like many of my fellow citizens, I didn’t believe such things could happen in modern America. It’s not that I’m unaware of this country’s sordid history, including the forced separation of slave families and Native American children from their parents. I’m fully aware of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II; the Jim Crow South; the modern carceral state; and the mass imprisonment of people of color.

But the past several decades of American history has seen, with some exceptions, steady progress toward greater respect for civil rights and the kind of social and cultural advances that once might have seemed unimaginable — on everything from LGBT and disability rights to the #MeToo movement. It’s not naive or delusional to have believed that America would continue, with plenty of stops and starts along the way, to move in this direction.

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But the 18 months of the Trump era has been witness to a very different transformation. When once people talked about bending of the arc of the moral universe toward justice, that arc is now bending toward injustice and inhumanity.

If government bureaucrats are capable of carrying out policies forcibly separating children from their parents (and lying about it); if government officials refuse to shirk from justifying such policies; and if the president’s political supporters are willing to defend them; what actions won’t they carry out or defend? That is the question that should keep all of us up at night.

Once upon a time, using children as political pawns would have been the proverbial line in the sand. Yet, here we are — more than six weeks since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this policy shift — and the White House is digging in its heels. While public opinion polling shows overwhelming opposition to family separation, close to half of Republicans continue to support it. Make no mistake: If Republicans are willing to accept migrant children being forcibly taken away from their parents, they are willing to accept a lot worse.

Analogies to the Holocaust may be inapt even ahistorical, but perhaps a bit of dramatic license is necessary when the policies and rhetoric of our nation’s leaders are taking America on the path to something that many of us had come to believe could not happen here.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.