In the two weeks since President Trump shut down the federal government over his beloved border wall, the White House has offered a host of excuses for why such a construction project is so vital to the United States.
Trump and his administration claim that it will stop terrorists, stanch the flow of drugs into America, and keep Americans safe from undocumented immigrants. Never mind that no known terrorist has been stopped at the Southern border, most drugs that enter the United States come through legal ports of entry, and unauthorized immigrants commit disproportionately fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
But on Sunday, White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders came up with a new one. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace if a border wall was worth the disruption already being caused by the shutdown, she referred to the recent death of a California police officer, Ronil Singh, allegedly at the hands of an unauthorized immigrant. According to Sanders, “This shouldn’t happen in this country, particularly when we have things that we know can help prevent it. Every life — that’s what sets America apart from every other country; we value life. That it’s what makes us unique. And the day that we stop doing that . . . that’s when we stop being the greatest country on the face of this earth.”
This is a lovely sentiment, but it’s not remotely true. Instead, what truly sets America apart from other countries is how little we value the lives of our fellow citizens.
That is particularly true of the administration in which Sanders serves.
I know this might seem harsh, but the evidence of American indifference is overwhelming. Life expectancy in America declined in 2017 for the third year in a row. That hasn’t happened in this country in nearly a century and runs counter to the long-term global trend of increasingly higher life expectancy. Has the Trump administration or Congress mobilized resources and national attention in order to deal with this public health crisis? Not at all.
In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose. The federal response was tepid legislation passed last year that doesn’t significantly increase federal spending to deal with this crisis and largely short-changes addiction treatment.
The year 2017 was also the worst for gun violence in America since 1968 — with nearly 40,000 deaths. A country that “values life” would be looking for ways to lessen this carnage, but that hasn’t happened either.
An administration that embodied Sanders exceptionalist belief about saving lives and preventing needless deaths wouldn’t be trying to strip health care or sabotage legislation intended to increase the number of Americans with access to health care coverage. They wouldn’t be approving state efforts to place work requirements on Medicaid recipients, which has already caused tens of thousands of Americans to lose access to care. They certainly wouldn’t be slashing environmental regulations that keep harmful chemicals out of our water supply, our food, and the air we breathe.
If Sanders’ description of the United States were accurate, would America have some of the highest maternal mortality, child poverty, and obesity rates in the developed world? Would a child in a country that made the preservation of life its number one priority be 70 percent more likely to die before reaching adulthood than in other peer nations?
An administration that valued not just American life, but all life, certainly wouldn’t be proposing massive cuts in foreign aid.
All of these might be reasons, even, to shut down the government in order to get Congress’s attention — but of course that’s not what is happening. Rather we are talking about a wall that will do virtually nothing to make America safer.
The sad reality is that while this administration is awful when it comes to prioritizing life, it is consistent with a decades-long tend of lowering taxes (particularly for the wealthiest Americans), slashing the social safety net, and demonstrating studied indifference to the impact these policies have had on the quality of life of all Americans. it also runs counter to the actions of most other countries around the world, the majority of which make a priority out of improving the lives of their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, Sanders is correct that the United States in unique, just not in way that makes us the “greatest country on the face of this earth.”
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.