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We face a moral test, not a political one

The people I’d like to talk to about our government’s child abuse and kidnaping at the southern border are the men and women on the ground who actually do the dirty work.

I don’t mean the powerful people in Washington who have made this barbarity happen. They are, by their own design, far removed from the carnage, as are the chattering classes who jabber endlessly on the tube about children being ripped from their mothers’ arms.

No, the people I want to hear from are the human beings who take children away.

As they snatch a shrieking youngster, do they say to themselves, “Best if I grab her under the arms to give me greater control as she screams and squirms”? What about the partner: Does he ask himself how best to restrain the hysterical mother? Maybe both arms around the body would be best, he might be thinking.

Do they stop for a moment to consider what they are doing?

Here’s what I’m wondering: How can they do that? I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? Pluck a dread-filled child forcefully from its mother’s arms?

Do these men and women go home at night to their own children? How can they look at them?

I always have wondered how good people can do horrific things. I usually go back to the guy in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, who tells a hesitant, soul-searching compatriot whom he has asked to do something scurrilous: “Don’t be so honest; your boy is barefoot.”

Or I remember cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer’s I’m Just Doing My Job Club, which described people who were hired to do something awful and didn’t stop to consider whether they were acting morally.

Between them, those two motivations—earning a paycheck and not questioning orders—have caused most of modern man’s most abhorrent behavior. The guy who turned the gas on at Auschwitz, the guards who ran Manzanar and other concentration camps imprisoning Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

Doing a job we may not like in order to keep a roof over the family’s head and food on the table is something we all know about. We all have to eat some excrement on the job, as the saying goes. I certainly did.

But nobody ever asked me to harm a terrified baby, to hurt it in a way that will leave scars for the rest of that child’s life.

So, here’s the question: Is there a line that decent people should not cross? Even if it means losing their job? Even if it might turn their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, upside down?

I think there is. I’m not alone in that.

That takes us to Judge Robert Brack. Since 2003, working out of a courtroom in rural southern New Mexico, Brack has sentenced thousands of immigrants, most in this country without proper documentation, who had been found guilty of minor infractions. Most, he told the Los Angeles Times, were “hardworking, gentle, uneducated, and completely lacking in criminal history.”

But his job was to sentence them, and so he did. Until this year.

Brack resigned. He told the LA Times in May, “I have presided over a process that destroys families for a long time, and I am weary of it.”

Judge Brack, at long last, reached the point where his conscience told him, “Enough!” He arrived at that crossroads where what is legal and what is moral parted company, and he took the less-traveled road marked “Moral.”

He’s not the only one. There are people among those doing the U.S. oligarchy’s dirty work at the border who are urging their fellow agents to disobey repugnant orders that destroy children and families. And others sloshing through the rancid belly of the federal beast are also saying, “Ya basta!” “Enough!”

One example among a growing number: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman James Schwab left his job because ICE sanctioned lying to the American public about a raid.

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Schwab said of the statement that came from Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. “They [ICE] know it’s a lie,” Schwab told CBS News. “It was just shocking to me that no one wanted to fix that.”

“I could not fathom staying at an organization that was OK with lying to the American public,” he said.

Schwab came to that same fork in the road where Brack made his choice. So must those agents prying children from their mothers, and so must we all.

In the United States now, it’s about right and wrong. It’s about decency, not politics, not left or right, not “who we are as a nation” (that ubiquitous question). We are being tasked to answer a question far more fundamental, and important: who each of us is as a human being.

We all will have the opportunity to decide, each in our own particular context, most far less dramatic than the excruciating test being faced by the men and women at the border.

It’s easy to despair as we see our values being shredded.

Here are some words from historian Howard Zinn that might help.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic, it is based on the fact that human history is a history of not only cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”

I know which side of history I want to be on. How about you? ∆

Bob Cuddy found his muse again and writes from Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at [email protected] or write a letter to the editor and send it to [email protected].

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