A few years ago, a friend faced with a family dilemma that involved competing loyalties, asked my advice. Obviously, I was not going to make her choices for her, but I offered a basic rule for testing the morality of potential action or inaction: Will this (my actions) result in harm to little children? A simple enough moral test that my friend found useful in resolving her conflict.
The Trump administration has taken the opposite tack in its conflict with Democrats over immigration. Trump has directed that Central American migrant families who present themselves to US customs requesting asylum are to be detained, their children separated and held elsewhere. The purpose of these actions when they were introduced in 2017 was to force Democrats to agree to fund Trump's border wall — a campaign promise he made that resonates with his most ardent supporters, and which leaves him politically vulnerable as he struggles to fulfil it.
The forced separation of children from their parents is inhumane and immoral. Its results are irremediable damage to the children in impairment of systems of basic trust which underpin the neural processes of cognitive and emotional development. Normal development is impaired with actual damage to brain pathways. In short, Trump's use of the children as pawns in his conflict with Democrats and some Republicans result in real harm to little children.
Trump has moved on in recent weeks in terms of his immediate targets. He has threatened to conduct raids and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants currently living in the US unless Democrats acquiesce in his wish to alter the rules for asylum seekers. He had threatened use of the economic weapon of tariffs on Mexican goods imported to the US to force Mexico to change asylum rules. The goal — dismissed by most people knowledgeable about immigration — was to stop all immigration. Like other of his most recent threats — firing missiles at Ira,n for example — he quickly changed his mind and the threat was allowed to remain just that: a threat
But in the situation of the children, the Trump threats continue to have real consequence. The administration has lost track of 1400 separated children. The administration admits to having at least 2500 separated children in various detention facilities under conditions that are so inadequate as to bear comparison to concentration camps. Setsuka Ina, aged 75, a Japanese-American survivor of the internment camps that stain American history of its conduct in WWII, has used exactly this term to describe the federal facilities for children at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a place he remembers as the site of his own family's incarceration in 1942.
Seven asylum-seeking migrant children have now died while under custody of the government. In response to a suit against the Trump government's handling of the
detained children, a government lawyer argued that toothbrushes, soap and appropriate sleeping arrangements were not necessary for the government to meet its requirement to keep migrant children in "safe and sanitary" conditions.
An incredulous judge of the appeals court asked the attorney, "Are you arguing seriously that you don't believe the government is required to do something other than what I described: Cold all night long. Lights on all night long. Sleep on the concrete floor and you get an aluminum blanket?"
The problem is that like many inhuman conditions, like government instituted torture, or violation of human rights, like Guantanamo, the original overwhelming protests are receding in volume as time goes on and these outrageous criminal behaviours are becoming normalised. We learn to live with them at our common peril. Why would any future administration headed by people more representative of America's ideals have standing to support human rights abroad when this administration has so cavalierly violated fundamental human rights at home. As an American with pride in his military service — unlike this president who told Piers Morgan Vietnam was too far away — I can't let this criminal behaviour represent America. That is not who we are or who we want to be.
* Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.