The Trump administration's policy of separating families at the nation's southern border is wildly unpopular, with roughly two-thirds of the country opposing it and a barely more than a quarter supporting it. And among the country's intellectual and political elite, opposition to the policy seems almost unanimous.
However, the word "opposition" doesn't quite capture the prevailing sentiment. More accurate would be furious disgust, white-hot outrage, and sputtering indignation. Coverage of the policy and its human consequences is everywhere, serving as wallpaper online and on the editorial and op-ed pages of the nation's leading newspapers. When members of the administration offer (contradictory) accounts and defenses of the policy, the reaction is instantaneous and ferocious. People see evil, and they're rousing themselves to fight it, 24/7, promoting every story about forced separation of families, every photo of teenagers mulling about inside chain-link cages, every video of reporters trying to get inside a detention center, every heart-wrenching recording of children crying for their missing mothers and fathers.
That's understandable. The policy is horrible — thoroughly heartless and blatantly cruel, using young children as a deterrent to those contemplating emigration to the U.S., treating them as bargaining chips or hostages to gain an advantage in negotiations with Congress, and making a mockery of the GOP's pretense to be a pro-family party. It's also indisputably an expression of an administration motivated by racism and an unquenchable enthusiasm to pander to racists, as the president proved yet again with a Tuesday morning tweet that claimed that Democrats favor immigration because they want foreigners to "infest our Country."
For all of these reasons, family separation should be ended immediately.
Yet the intensity of the reaction to the policy in an alarming number of cases is nonetheless wildly out of proportion to the evils being perpetrated, leading many to make assertions, draw analogies, and engage in condemnations that are ridiculous or implausible. That helps no one, since it undermines the moral authority of those making the accusations.
Why on Earth would former CIA Director Michael Hayden liken the administration's family separation policy to the Holocaust by tweeting a photograph of the Birkenau death camp at Auschwitz? In a subsequent interview, Hayden clarified that he was "trying to point out we need be careful not to move in that direction." Good to know! Yes, let's definitely not corral several million immigrants into death camps and then exterminate them using poison gas. What would we do without four-star Air Force generals to keep us on the straight and narrow?
Less blatantly irresponsible but similarly misguided are those, like former first lady Laura Bush, who draw too-easy parallels between the Trump administration's policy of family separation and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The thing that made the latter policy such an egregious affront to American ideals was that many of those shipped to camps were naturalized American citizens whose citizenship status (along with the constitutional protections citizens enjoy) was disregarded in the name of national security at a time of war. This is obviously not the case with those facing family separation today, who have just arrived at the border from other places, seeking asylum, and so are not American citizens.
For those who affirm the morality of universal humanitarianism, this distinction is irrelevant; everyone on the planet, citizen or not, must be treated equally. But such a position is incompatible with a world of discrete nations, with a world that recognizes and respects the distinction between citizen and non-citizen. America does not have open borders — although master demagogue Donald Trump claims his opponents want them. Those who wish to weaken the demagogue should not play into his hands by making assertions that suggest his lies and distortions may actually be true.
Remember, too, that America regularly does far worse things than separating children from their parents. In many cases, it facilitates or carries out the killing and maiming of foreigners in drone strikes and other military actions in countries around the world. If it's wrong for the American government to separate children from their parents, isn't it far, far worse for the American government to turn children into orphans, or parents into mourners for the death or dismemberment of their children? Yet we do precisely this nearly every single day, and with a tiny fraction of the public outcry.
At this very moment the U.S. is providing military and logistical support for Saudi Arabia's relentless bombardment of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. By any measure, this is causing vastly greater suffering for vastly greater numbers of people than the Trump administration's family separation policy. But hardly anyone seems to care.
That doesn't at all excuse the actions of the administration along the nation's southern border. But it does call into question the priorities and motives of those who are leading the charge against them.
The administration's critics are amply justified in their revulsion at its immigration policies. But it isn't strict adherence to consistent moral principle that is motivating the reaction to them. It is the selective application of moral principle to a situation that people sense or hope will prove to be politically advantageous.
People who hate President Trump and his policies smell blood in the water, and they're eager (actually, overeager) to pounce on them with everything they've got.
Time will tell if this political judgment is wise or foolish. In the meantime, we shouldn't mislead ourselves about what's really going on. The president is playing a particularly nasty form of politics with asylum-seekers and their children. Trump's political opponents must not lose their focus — or their perspective.