By Robert C. Koehler
“They were quiet, and just staring, blankly,” she said. “There were just blank stares and no expressions on their faces.”
Welcome to hell, as presided over by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
This image bears deep reflection. It doesn’t change. Children are taken from their parents, jammed into cages. They have no lives left.
The speaker is Dr. Sara Goza, new president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who recently toured some emigrant detention facilities, including CBP’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. “The first thing that hit me when we walked in the door,” Goza said, according to NBC News, “was the smell. It was the smell of sweat, urine and feces.”
A few days later, combat planes roared over the nation’s capital and Trump supporters cheered wildly, sucked in by the noise and excitement. America is great again, right?
The children in the cages weren’t cheering.
I know, I know. Who cares, right? Out of curiosity the other day I opened one of the right-wing emails that I somehow manage to attract and followed its link to a story at Breitbart: “A majority of Americans want mass deportations of illegal aliens if Congress fails to reach a deal this week that closes loopholes in the country’s asylum system that allow mass flows of foreign nationals to pour through the U.S.-Mexico border.”
This paragraph requires as much reflective groping as the other one. Suddenly the caged hell at the border doesn’t matter; it has no emotional impact. All it took was a different choice of words. When the issue is “illegal aliens” flowing over the border into the Land of the Free . . .
“In addition to costing us money they also cost us resources.” So began one of the thousand-plus comments at the end of the article. “Would California even have had a water crisis if millions of illegal aliens were using water meant for actual Americans?”
And here’s the national divide, defined with a razor cut across the soul. Those damn illegals were drinking water “meant” (can’t you just feel the divine empowerment in this word?) for “actual Americans.” Are the majority of actual Americans really this intellectually and psychologically caged, this trapped in their own ignorance? What’s next, telling the illegals to drink out of the toilet?
This country — the one defined by “actual Americans” endlessly needing to defend themselves against some lesser aspect of humanity — is not the country I believe in, but it’s the one I live in, at least for the moment. Its days are limited, simply because ignorance does not remain bliss for very long. We, by which I mean all of life, will survive and prevail only if we relearn that everything is connected. All people are connected. If we obsess about borders rather than focus on understanding, we will choke and die from the very dehumanization with which we contaminate Planet Earth.
And understanding must begin with knowing there is no such thing as “actual Americans” — there are only actual human beings.
Eerily, the NBC story in which Dr. Goza described the conditions the children she visited were enduring contained this random bit of information: The Central Processing Center that held them is “known as Ursula.” I almost couldn’t believe it, since I had already begun thinking how much this real-life scenario was reminding me of perhaps the most disturbing short story I have ever read in my life. The story is called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The author is Ursula Le Guin.
In this story, Le Guin cracks open the paradox of the human condition. She postulates a utopian city called Omelas, whose residents are joyous, loving and creative, their lives the fulfillment of all human striving. The scenario is seductive, though hardly credible, so the author pauses midway in the story to ask: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”
And she tells us about a tiny room — not a cage, exactly, but a tiny closet: “In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket.
“. . . In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops.”
The child, the author explains, has been ripped away from a mother it still remembers and locked in a squalid mop closet. Its absolute misery constitutes the terms of the city’s prosperity and happiness. All the residents of Omelas know about the child; their visit to its cell in early adolescence is a coming-of-age ritual. They leave in tears, but most wind up accepting the bargain: one child’s misery in exchange for the happiness of thousands.
This isn’t exactly the American bargain, but it’s close enough to tear all certainty to pieces. Some of the children who left the Central Processing Center were asked to draw what their time was like at the detention facility. They drew pictures of kids in cages.
Fascinatingly, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has contacted the American Academy of Pediatrics about acquiring these drawings and adding them to its collection. The museum wants to continue “telling the complex and complicated history of the United States and to documenting that history as it unfolds.”
And director emeritus Brent Glass explained to NPR that the museum has a mission “to inspire people to know more about American history and to hopefully create a more humane society.”
You mean inspire actual Americans? Show them the mop closet? That may not be enough. What if we all spent some time living in it?
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.