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In Search of The Story's Hero: The road back to empathy is the road back to freedom

I had started to write a blog post earlier this week, but it became a podcast about the impending demolition of the Notre Dame church here in Worcester. Sometimes that's the way writing goes: You think you're doing one thing, and the finished result is something else entirely. Sometimes, I think I lose a lot of productivity trying to force things to be one thing when they really want to be another, but that's probably an issue for another day. 

The news continues to be horrific. And as with most things related to this administration, things look even worse and more rotted-through than they originally appeared. Which is impressive, when you consider how bad they looked before. The situation at the border has become a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, and the remedies being applied by Washington are largely cosmetic. As of mid-day Friday, only two immigrant families have been reunited with their children. Two, out of roughly 2,300. CNN is reporting plans to reunite more families, but it's a slow, chaotic process.

There's no way in which this hasn't been an unmitigated disaster, and what's worse is that it was a completely unnecessary exercise. We don't really have an immigration problem. No, really. In the '80s, we were seeing more than a million undocumented aliens entering the country, mostly for economic reasons. The trend has been declining steadily for years to it's current point, which is less than 200,000 annually. Moreover, fewer are coming for economic reasons, and more fleeing violence. Of course, this administration has no empathy for refugees, no matter their standing under the law or the moral imperative of helping those in need. Look at former Trump campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski making sad trombone noises to the description of a girl with Down syndrome being taken away from her mother, or Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmead saying, “Like it or not, these aren't our kids. Show them compassion, but it's not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas.”

I am no longer shocked or appalled at these people. I know already that they're objectively terrible. It's when I hear that rhetoric being echoed by normal people that I get alarmed, when people bristle viscerally and lash back when confronted with scenes like this, that I can stop my reflexive instinct to attack and make a small effort to understand them. Because the pain and fear behind the retort of “I'm sick of hearing about the children, [INSERT RATONALIZATION HERE]” couldn't be more visible. It's guilt. It's the reaction of someone who knows they're wrong, and they can't admit it.

Make no mistake: Our immigration system has been a mess for decades. We ended up with a bunch of in-between legal stopgaps because, honestly, it had become one of those rare situations where the cheaper option, the most humane option and the most politically expedient one were all the same thing. So at the border, undocumented immigrants were handled as an administrative matter rather than a legal one. Because at the end of the day, crossing the border is not a serious crime.

As pointed out by comedian Samantha Bee (and re-iterated by Rolling Stone): “'Trump's anti-immigration henchmen love to point out that they're dealing with a serious crime and that we don't let American criminals hang onto their children in jail.' But unlawful entry, she added, is only a federal misdemeanor, on the same list of infractions as 'using the American flag for advertising purposes, neglecting to answer census questions, taking shellfish from New York harbor channels, detaining a seaman's clothing ... and, I swear to Jesus Christ this is real, misusing 'Smokey Bear.'”

It's sort of the Leviticus of laws. They only pay attention to the parts that justify them being horrible to people. Shellfish is an abomination, folks!

I joke, but it's a serious matter. The crisis at the border, yes, but also this inability of people to concede they're wrong when the truth is so plainly obvious, when the affront to human decency is so plain it can't be ignored. Certainly, that's been a feature of our politics for some time now, especially in conservative politics, where the machismo of never admitting a mistake is commonplace. For fear of echoing RuPaul in this season's Drag Race Reunion, admitting they were wrong would mean deconstructing their belief system. Ru was talking there about religious parents who know their children are gay, and cope with it by never discussing that part of their lives, by pretending it doesn't happen. This is similar. This isn't just admitting you're wrong, this is admitting that an administration you support is downright villainous. Not, “doing terrible things in a misguided attempt to protect the country” bad, which is commonplace, but flat-out evil. And make no mistake: Allowing people – especially people who are already suffering to be harmed just so you can feel better about yourself makes you complicit in that harm in every sense of the word. You have allowed fear into your heart, and actions taken out of fear rarely end well.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, commonly referred to as ICE, was created out of fear. It's a relatively new agency, born in 2003 as a response to sweeping post-9/11 xenophobia. I think there's a sort of person who takes comfort in the theater of militancy, but I'm not one of them. All I can see is the second largest joint task force doesn't spend most of its time cracking down on gang members or terrorists, it spends its time chasing poor people trying to survive in peace. It's one of those things that you have to work to justify. Sometimes, a jackboot by any other name is still a jackboot. Sometimes, you have to admit that the United States is not always the hero in the story. 

We like to mythologize our history and pretend that we've always been the hero, but that's obviously not true. Lots of people have pointed to slavery, the Japanese internment camps, the treatment of Native Americans. Indeed, there are people alive today in those latter two instances who remember families being incarcerated and children being snatched away from their families and sent to “boarding schools.” For their own good, or so someone in Washington would say. Sometimes, as a nation, we do horrible things because we have horrible options, but other times, we just have to admit that we do horrible things because it's easier than being better. And sometimes, often when we're forced to confront what we're doing, we are capable of being better.

We like to think of concepts such as being moral or being free as binary states – one either is or is not. That's not really true, though. I think, as a nation, we are on a constant journey of becoming more moral and more free, but we backtrack and stumble a lot. The two are inextricably linked: How can we be free if there are jackbooted thugs stealing children from poor people? How can we be free if a person of color lives in constant fear of being shot by police for no reason. How can we be free if we're caged by fear? Even if these are things we do not face personally, they surround us, and poison us on every level. Empathy is the tool we use to erase that toxicity, to stop being awful.

There are people who will tell you that things such as kindness and empathy are weaknesses, but what's patently obvious is that for all their tough talk, they're the ones walking around terrified of everything. That sounds exhausting to me. I can't think of a state of being further from being free. It's an incarceration of your own bigotries, and it's largely self-inflicted. No. Kindness, empathy, reason and the moral fortitude to stand up to our worst, most cowardly and violent instincts are the things that will put us back on the road to being the hero of the story. They're the things that push us toward being more free, that will truly make America great. But only if we're brave enough to change.

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