Don’t be silly: We are NOT better than this

The abuses of refugee children at the border are as American as apple pie.

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Migrants and children in New Mexico hangar

Migrants guide their children through the entrance of a World War II-era bomber hangar in Deming, N.M. last month.

Associated Press

“We are better than this”?

I’ve heard a lot of wistful liberal catch phrases in my day. From “The whole world is watching” (the whole world is living under a tarp hoping there’s dinner and couldn’t care less if the police bust your head) to “Not in my name” (funny, because your name was on the tax bill paying for it) and I have to say, the current indignation over immigrants, particularly children, being kept on the border in hellish conditions, is, well, cute.

“We are better than this.”

Opinion bug


Since when? Leave it to Americans to turn our intentional abuse of refugees into an occasion for pride. Our government greets those turning to us for asylum by dividing their families and torturing their children, while our citizens start preening about how our supposed values are being violated by this freakish aberration.

Pretty to think so, as Jake Barnes said.

This isn’t the exception. It’s the rule. We are NOT better than this. We have NEVER been better than this. We are exactly this, and always have been.

Cherokees had children too, you know.

”The bugle sounded and the wagon started rolling,” wrote John G. Burnett, a Tennessee soldier who saw Native Americans “loaded like cattle” as they set out on the “Trail of Tears” in 1838.

”Many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands goodbye to their mountain home, knowing they were leaving them forever,” Burnett wrote. “Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted. ... The sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail was a trail of death.”

In case you dismiss that as a relic of the distant past — there is no atrocity so horrendous that someone can’t shrug it off with a smirk — remember the relocation was ordered by Andrew Jackson. It is his mug that the Trump administration decided must stay on the $20 bill, and not be replaced by Harriet Tubman, lest black Americans be emboldened to believe that this is their country too.

Speaking of which: slaves had children.

”Don’t leave me, mama! Don’t leave me!” a little girl screams in Solomon Northup’s 1855 memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” as mother and daughter are torn apart at a slave auction. “Never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured and unbounded grief.”

Protest against the detention of migrant children

Protesters at a rally Saturday in Oklahoma. They object to using Fort Sill to house 1,400 migrant children. The military base has a history of housing those seeking asylum as well as others detained by the government, including Japanese Americans who were imprisoned there during World War II and, before that, Native Americans.

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

While it helps if children belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority for Americans to be indifferent to their brutalization, the majority could also turn a blind eye to its own. Nor were these limited to the factories of New England, the mills of the South or the mines of Kentucky.

In the early 1900s, 4,000 newsboys and girls worked Chicago streets, selling papers for pennies. They slept outside in the cold, were hit by streetcars and sexually molested by adults.

“Something should be done to take the babies from the streets,” Jane Addams urged, after interviewing hundreds of newsies in 1903.

And on and on. Jewish children were given the backhand in 1939, when a bill that would have admitted 20,000 German youngsters as refugees died in Congressional committee. Right color, wrong religion.

You get my point. Or perhaps don’t and never will. We needn’t look at history. Walk in any direction today and you’ll trip over parents who don’t care about their own children, never mind anyone else’s. Spit in a crowd and you’ll hit someone fooling himself that an exaggerated interest in the fate of fetuses, even though that benevolence vaporizes at the moment of birth, amounts to concern for children. It doesn’t.

Extremism breeds extremism, so I must sound a contrary note. Our beloved country has had a proud traditions of abolitionists, emancipators, suffragettes, children’s rights advocates, liberators, and kind-hearted souls. When you stack our history against the charnel house of Europe, the gulag of Russia, the despotism of China, the tin pot dictatorships of South America, we can hold our heads up, if not high. Our government didn’t rape teenage girls then toss them, bound, from helicopters into rivers within recent memory. They can’t say the same in Argentina.

Not the highest standard though, is it? The longer the Trump era grinds on, the more I see it, not as an aberration, but as reversion to form. This is how we are, were, and probably always will be. 

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