Saturday, July 13, 2019

This is America. This is not America

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and blood filled than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

           — Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"

CERTAIN TRAGEDIES are so immense, so numbly overwhelming that they seem impossible to get the mind around. The sheer breadth of their impact, the callous brazenness that led to their creation beggars the imagination. Words, language, fail you.

We confront the weight of self-inflicted tragedies like that with the quick fix of patriotism, the rationalization of something done in the National Interest. The Fourth of July is good for that. It’s conveniently difficult to recognize agony when fireworks and brass bands are blasting their way into your attention span. But some atrocities aren’t subject to interpretation and spin, some will not go quietly, some demand to be seen for what they are.

The evolving tragedies on the southern border of the United States claimed two more victims on June 23, when Salvadorean refugees Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned in the foul waters of the Rio Grande as they attempted to cross into the United States. Their bodies were found near Matamoros, Mexico.

NPR reported on June 26: “Ramírez's wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, says she watched from the shore as her husband and daughter were pulled away by a strong river current near the border crossing between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas.”

Their needless deaths were only some of the fatalities discovered that day. NPR again: “On the same day Óscar Alberto and Valeria died, U.S. Border Patrol agents found four bodies along the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, about 55 miles west of Brownsville. In that case, three children — one toddler and two infants — died along with a 20-year-old woman.”

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IF YOU GO by the official pronouncements originating from the Office of the Presidential Asterisk, their deaths were all avoidable; they were collateral damage in our ongoing conflict with the hordes of drug couriers, mules and MS-13 chieftains seeking to infect the United States with untold evils and wickedness.

That is the presumed rationale for House Trump’s latest bid to weaponize poverty: the threatened raids on 2,000 migrants in the United States, raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 10 American cities beginning July 14. NBC and other news outlets reported that ICE attempted some raids the day before, in Sunset Park and Harlem, N.Y.

As a result, churches are offering migrants sanctuary from federal arrest. Lawmakers tweet information to their constituents telling them how to deal with ICE agents should they come knocking. And on Thursday, July 11, the vice president of the United States toured a migrant processing facility in Texas, looking like a Nazi minister surveying the fruits of his regime’s malignant labor: the beaten, desperate inhabitants of an American concentration camp.

This is one of the sites that are the epicenter of a new, ascendant American cruelty. NBC News reported about another one: “In May, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General wrote an internal report stating that conditions were so bad at an El Paso, Texas, border facility, where about half the migrants in custody were sleeping outdoors, that agents there feared possible rioting.”

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Less than two weeks ago, the United States of America celebrated its 243rd birthday, with all the ritual exercises we’ve become accustomed to. If we as a nation aren’t careful, and aggressive and fiercely paying attention, what is happening in Texas, and what may happen this weekend in at least 10 American cities, is the brutal crafting of a new American ritual: the harassment and roundup of America’s most vulnerable residents, and the rampant moral relativism that makes that cruelty not just possible but inevitable.

Less than two weeks ago, the United States of America came face to face again with its central conundrum: resolving the lofty promise of this nation with its often corrosive reality, the reality that Frederick Douglass observed firsthand and related to an audience in Rochester, N.Y. in 1852.

Douglass was speaking of the status and condition of the American slave, but he may as well have been talking about life in this country at this very moment. Not enough has changed. Not enough is history. Too much of the past is the present, and likely to be the future.

This is America. This is not America.

Image credits: Óscar Alberto and Valeria: Julia Le Duc/Associated Press. Line drawing: American Academy of Pediatrics. Pence and officials: MSNBC.

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