interesting times

Another Glimpse of State Terror in Trump’s America

People protest the Trump administration’s family separation policy in New York on June 1, 2018. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Keep a list, they tell you. Notice the little landmarks that tell you that authoritarianism is making headway.

It’s worth making a note, then, when a president goes out of his way to declare he has an “absolute right” to pardon himself, and anyone else, if he so wants, for any reason, including protecting himself and others from possible charges of conspiracy against the United States. Yes, there are legal details here that make this remarkable constitutional claim a little more more complicated than it sounds, as in: Can the Executive branch obstruct itself? Yes, we’re also told that the president has no intention, you understand, of pardoning himself right now, he’s just musing, as he so often does, on various unrelated constitutional conundrums; and yes, he’s pardoning friends and allies, as other friends and allies face a special prosecutor. But just take a note. You’ll be amazed how swiftly this recedes as the latest provocation occupies your soul.

And it’s also worth taking a note when a near-universal norm of human decency is thrown out of the window, with a sudden change in procedure. I’m talking about the idea of a government that reserves the right to separate children from their parents forcibly — and not for interests of rescuing the child from abuse. I’m talking about the 658 children taken from their parents at the border in the two weeks since a new policy was introduced, with the aim of prosecuting everyone who enters the U.S. illegally immediately.

I kept reading Hugh Hewitt’s recent interview with Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the subject to see if Sessions might evince a tiny qualm about this. In May alone, hundreds of children were subjected to this trauma, now counted alongside 11,000 children in government shelters across the U.S. Most are kept in huge detention centers, without their mothers or fathers, and outsiders are barred from entering. Hewitt is not a softy, he’s a hard-line Republican, reliably partisan, often ludicrously so. But even Hewitt was aghast at the sheer cruelty of this and the banality of Sessions’s response to it. Money quote:

Hewitt: Is it absolutely necessary, General, to separate parents from children when they are detained or apprehended at the border?


Sessions: Yes … We believe every person that enters the country illegally like that should be prosecuted. And you can’t be giving immunity to people who bring children with them recklessly and improperly and illegally …

Hewitt: I understand the prosecution part. But is it necessary to separate the children? Could they not be detained in facilities where at least mothers and infants could remain together?

Sessions: Well, most are not infants. Most are teenagers, although we do have a number of younger ones now, more than we’ve seen recently …


Hewitt: But General, what I’m pressing on, because I’m disturbed by this. I don’t think children should be separated from biological parents at any age, but especially if they’re infants and toddlers. I think it’s traumatic and terribly difficult on the child. Is it absolutely necessary to do so? Can’t we have facilities where parents remain united with kids? …


Sessions: [I]t’s certainly not our goal to separate children, but I do think it’s clear, it’s legitimate to warn people who come to the country unlawfully bringing children with them that they can’t expect that they’ll always be kept together … If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them. We’ve got to get this message out.”

In other words, the children are separated from their parents in order to send a message to future illegal immigrants. Come here, and we’ll take your kids away. This was not a panicked measure, taken quickly, to avert a crisis. It was months under due consideration, with plenty in the Trump administration balking at the inhumanity of it all. These children are being traumatized to send a message. They are being used as a form of deterrence for others.

When the government threatens to tear families apart in this way, it is inflicting what can only be called state terror. Masha Gessen notes how this tactic is deployed by Putin against the children of demonstrators, as a form of intimidation, and is straight out of the totalitarian playbook: “Putin and the system he has created have consistently, if not necessarily with conscious intent, restored key mechanisms of Soviet control. The spectacle of children being arrested sends a stronger message than any amount of police violence against adults could do.” It is of a piece with threatening the lives of the children of terror suspects as a way to gain leverage against prisoners (this happened under the Bush administration and was expanded upon in the 2016 campaign by Trump, who favored killing the children as a form of punishment). As for the facilities in which these kids are held, Sessions told Hewitt he has never been to one. Senator Merkley of Oregon tried to gain access recently to one in Brownsville, Texas. He was not allowed in, and the windows in the massive building holding the children are darkened. Why, one wonders? Senator Menendez was also barred from inspecting another holding center.

The Trump administration argues that if they are going to immediately detain all illegal immigrants, and they can’t house children in adult jails, they have no choice. Really? It seems perfectly possible to find a way to ensure that at least mothers and children are detained together, to ensure that some decency is possible in an otherwise callous process. If the resources are not there, right now, then it should be a matter of extreme urgency for the Congress to find them. Being detained in a foreign country, separated from family, unable to understand the language being spoken to them, is what can only be called profound trauma. It’s disorienting, terrifying, and happens after what is usually a stressful and frightening and long journey, often in desperate fear. This is simply something the United States should never do.

I understand the need to maintain a strong border — and this can’t be achieved without armed force. I’m fine with tough enforcement, open to E-verify, lower future immigration levels, and even Trump’s fricking wall. But there are some core humane lines no civilized country should cross, some red lines, such as torture, or mistreatment of prisoners, or the wrenching of children from loving parents by agents of the state. This isn’t a completely isolated instance either. The ICE arrests that are happening every day just as mothers and fathers drop their kids off at school are particularly horrifying. They violate official policy, which is supposed to restrict arrests at “sensitive locations,” but the loopholes in this provision are legion. Children see their mom or dad suddenly subjected to force, shoved out of cars, handcuffed and then simply spirited away. No child should ever be subjected to this, period. The sheer trauma it will generate can last a lifetime. Yes, these are noncitizens. Yes, many have broken the law. But they are also children. Every day we numb ourselves to these core violations of decency, America dies a little.

When challenged on this, of course, Trump simply lied and insisted that the Democrats came up with this “horrible law.” He has nothing to do with what his own ICE is doing, he tells us. Nothing.

The thing about this despicable man is that he doesn’t even have the courage of his own cruelty.

Religious Hostility

I’m relieved in a way that the Supreme Court decided to punt on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. We could do with a little fudging in the culture wars these days. So instead of tackling the deeper, perhaps irresolvable, conflicts of religious freedom and gay rights, Kennedy just narrowed the ruling to the single case in question, and cited the anti-religious statement of one member of the state commission as the crux of the case. Money quote:

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere.

Kennedy was referring to one of the state civil-rights commissioner’s contemptuous statement about the baker’s faith. The trouble is, a growing number of people, many of them exactly kind of person who sits on a civil-rights commission in a blue state, do actually and sincerely feel contempt for religion and religious belief. They think that all religious thought and practice is bonkers, irrational, based on ancient, strange texts, and with no relevance in the modern world, and a force, on the whole, for bigotry. When those texts and beliefs are used to do what many consider harm to someone based on an involuntary characteristic, it’s a no-brainer. Of course gay rights will increasingly win out in these cases, especially now the state commissioners won’t be so dumb as to air their real views in public.

And this is true even for weak-kneed Christians like me who have no interest in hitting anyone else over the head with our faith. When it comes to full-on fundamentalists, the capacity for some scrap of mutual understanding is increasingly remote. The more distant you are — socially, geographically, generationally, culturally — from anyone who practices religion in any serious way, the harder it is to empathize, and to see these cases as a conflict at all. It simply seems incredible that someone would hold these views faithfully.

I’m not criticizing the right to see religion in this way; I’m worried simply about how this kind of contempt and mutual incomprehension spill over into civil intolerance. Which is why I still hope we can muster up as much respect for the homosexual person as we can for the faithful one. Most of the time, if we use a little restraint, we can avoid these ugly and difficult conflicts. For those many of us who are both gay and Christian, it would surely be a mercy.

On the Bright Side

I’m determined these days to find some good news to write about. Don’t worry. I won’t go all Steve Pinker on you, or Obama-deep: “There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.” But there I was, surfing merrily away the other day, and stumbled onto this piece of newish information I hadn’t absorbed:

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the annual rate of deforestation has more than halved since the 1990s. Between 2010 and 2015, the world has gained 4.3 million hectares of forest per year, while losing 7.6 million hectares of forest per year. That accounts for a net decrease of 0.08 percent of forest area each year.

That’s because there are still 4 billion acres of forest out there, 31 percent of the Earth’s land surface. The better news is that the more developed countries get the more forest they regain. Britain has almost as much forest today as it had a thousand years ago, and triple what it had in 1919. The critical metric, Matt Ridley argues, is $4,500 GDP per capita. Once that point is reached, countries reforest, another sign that economic advance does not have to mean environmental spoliation. There is hope yet for the planet’s lungs.

And then there’s the kind of stat that can get lost in the debate over policing: the number of unarmed people shot dead by the police in the U.S. is, as of May of this year, the lowest in the three years it’s been measured. That’s still 23 people in all, of whom eight are black men. Twenty-three too many, but it contrasts with 26 this time last year, 22 in 2016, and 39 in 2015. Yes, we’re still debating whether it’s fine for NFL players to kneel to draw attention to these tragedies. But the core issue seems ever so slightly to be ameliorating. I’ll take that as a good sign.

Oh, and the leader of the AfD, the far-right party in Germany, went swimming and someone stole his clothes. And don’t forget potcoin. It’s the little things …

See you next Friday.

Another Glimpse of State Terror in Trump’s America