Humanity on the Southern Border

What’s happening on the country’s southern border scares me. What’s happening in the rest of the country in response scares me far more.

Comparing social problems to extreme violence past tends to sensationalize what should be solemn. We should wield comparisons like that rarely, and apply them narrowly. But we should also make certain to see them when they’re immediately evident.

The true warning of mass violence isn’t in the extent of the killing managed. That’s a contest with no winner. The Belgians in the Congo, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Hutus in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, American slavery or forced migration of Indians, colonial Britain and other powers across Africa and the Americas, Darfur, El Salvador, Mao, Stalin, Hitler. Comparing the magnitude of violence suggests that violence of lesser magnitude is less worthy of concern.

The true caution of mass violence is in those who lived to tell of the atrocity. Not survivors, or even perpetrators, but those who watched it committed or managed to avoid looking too closely in the first place.

It’s no mystery how we’re able to accomplish such criminal indifference over and over. We say it all the time. Dehumanization. We rarely stop to ask ourselves what that actually means. But Hannah Arendt defined it for us.

To Arendt, the bureaucracy was essential in the brutality she observed in Germany and the Soviet Union. It obscured and allowed one person to commit one small portion of the atrocity and preserved for him the choice to avert his gaze from the rest. It provided the distance.  I simply locked the doors; I don’t know who came for them later or where they went.

But another crucial step in the path to mass violence – the means by which a people could countenance brutality - was the designation of another as “stateless.” Arendt goes to great lengths to make the definition of statelessness distinct. Second class citizens are still citizens. Process governs the assimilation or rejection of immigrants. Foreigners have ties to countries that demand their own respect and sovereignty.

The stateless are unwanted. Jews in Europe had no national home. There was nothing for them but isolation when the Nazis stripped them of citizenship.

No one is responsible for those without a country or status. They can be kept where no one will look, their freedom dependent on a process that is vaguely defined because their relationship to the law is equally vague. Is it unjust to detain people when justice is defined by laws that don’t apply? Is it unjust when their conditions deteriorate or they encounter more harsh treatment? The longer the answer remains “no” the more appalling the questions will become.

Humanity and dignity transcend legal status of every kind. Humanity and dignity are not enshrined in the constitution or in the laws. Several important components are enumerated, but humanity is greater than the sum of its parts. Decency and compassion go beyond law.

Citizenship can never be a prerequisite for humanity.  Citizenship is neither concrete nor solid, but fragile and formless.  If we decide who to hurt based on who has citizenship, then there’s nothing stopping us from deciding who has citizenship based on who we’d prefer to hurt.

And so it is, no matter the imagined status.

The impulse to qualify the humanity of others scares me because of what it enables us to do. The impulse not just to excuse violence outright, but to equivocate or turn away scares me because of what we’ve managed before in darkness. We’ve done it for millennia based on birthright, skin color, citizenship, criminal history, ethnicity, religion, and nationality.

Stripping people of status and placing them outside the law has always served to free those watching from any obligation to their shared humanity.

It scares me that it’s working.