Yesterday The Baltimore Sun published this article by an American University professor, and a penny dropped for me when I read it:
A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.
At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.
At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old woman traveling from Qatar to visit her son, who is a U.S. citizen and serviceman stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The woman was held for more than 33 hours, according to the New York Times, and denied use of a wheelchair.
The men and women who work for the federal government completed these and other tasks and then returned to their families, where perhaps they had dinner and read stories to their children before bedtime.
When we worry and wonder about authoritarian regimes that inflict cruelty on civilians, we often imagine tyrannical despots unilaterally advancing their sinister agendas. But no would-be autocrat can act alone. As a practical matter, he needs subordinates willing to carry out orders. Of course, neither Donald Trump nor Steve Bannon personally detained any of the more than 100 people held at airports over the weekend pursuant to the administration's executive order on immigration, visitation and travel to the United States. They relied on assistance.
The men and women who reportedly handcuffed small children and the elderly, separated a child from his mother and held others without food for 20 hours, are undoubtedly "ordinary" people. What I mean by that, is that these are, in normal circumstances, people who likely treat their neighbors and co-workers with kindness and do not intentionally seek to harm others. That is chilling, as it is a reminder that authoritarians have no trouble finding the people they need to carry out their acts of cruelty. They do not need special monsters; they can issue orders to otherwise unexceptional people who will carry them out dutifully.
This should not be a surprise. The famous Milgram experiment and subsequent studies suggest that many people will obey instructions from an authority figure, even if it means harming another person. It is also perfectly understandable (which does not mean it is justifiable). How many of us would refuse to follow an instruction from a superior at work? It is natural to want to keep one's job, even if at the price of inflicting cruelty on another human being, even perhaps a child.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: What will we do? This is not a hypothetical question. Most of us will not face the stark choice employees at airports faced over the weekend. But we are all democratic citizens. Ultimately, our government can only act if we allow it to act. Under our Constitution, the people rule. Our elected officials, including the president, are accountable to us. We possess the power to reject actions we see as out of bounds. We are used to doing this in elections, but democratic tools go further. Even once an election is over, we can exercise our First Amendment rights to contact elected officials, speak, write and protest.
It is far easier to do nothing, to trust that, somehow, America's dangerous course will be set right. But this is a dangerous gamble, and in fact an abdication of our responsibility as Americans and indeed as human beings. If we do nothing, that is a choice. It means we accept a government that has demonstrated it is capable of inflicting cruelty on the innocent and defenseless.
What will we do?I have friends- people I've known since childhood- who support this. For all their crowing over the end of p.c. in 2016, the Sore Winners Brigade are revealing themselves as astonishingly delicate little "snowflakes"- to borrow their term. Challenge their thinking, challenge their leader's percipience at policymaking, and they get really cross.
It's understandable. They were in opposition so long, and so well had they developed their ability to parrot the talking points of their favorite media bomb throwers, that even as they have spent the last eight years slowly, then rapidly, taking over the government- every branch, at every level- they have had no idea how to govern. They cast stones and launch investigations. The high make the rounds on Fox News; the low watch them there and repeat what they hear.
That's how my friends were quick out of the box last week with assurances that no one was being mistreated or wrongfully excluded under the President's emergency order to stop terrorists from leaving the seven nations they have not launched attacks from in the past to come to America in new waves, here to behead America's beloved homosexuals.
In no time, as the stories rolled in from reporters at airports, interviewing people, my friends changed their story. Well, anytime you roll out a massive change, a few incidents will occur. But it's only 109 out of 325,000 entering America that day, they aid, and they knew it was true because the President's press secretary said so and then the President himself tweeted it.
But with this lot, it pays to diagram their sentences.
"109"? That's a remarkably specific number, only hours into a nationwide roundup. Where's that from, I asked. We don't need to know, I was told. The President says so, and it's national security so it's a secret. How dumb are you anyway, Thompson, doubting this stuff? Do you want the radical Muslum terrorists to hunt you down and cut off your head?
Well, no. But what about "325,000 who entered the country yesterday?"
That's the sort of carefully-crafted sentence that underpinned a million rally chants of "Lyin' Hillary!" It shifts the focus, subsuming the unstated number of people affacted by the President's order into a larger, undefined number of people from the other 185+ nations of the world. And those are people who were allowed in. The order was to identify others, and keep them out.
After a day or two, when it emerged that over 1200 people had been detained, and were being held without access to legal counsel in defiance of several federal judges' orders, and that over 100,000 people who left America on valid green cards found they were revoked when they wanted to come home, my friends were back with fresh downloads from the people they rely on to think for them.
Well, they said, anytime a huge organization tries to roll out a nationwide program all at once, there are bound to be mistakes (like the Obamacare website! my friend Mark Aremia, who seems to have become quite the adept at false equivalences since high school, gotcha'd me). What's the trouble with hassling less than one million to protect 320 million?
Chris Edelstein's article is about those friends of mine who believe recitation is thinking and reptition is discussion. As Edelson notes, the chilling bit is seeing the Milgram experiment's result's reproven on a vastly enlarged scale (to my friends, science- and proof through consistently reproducible results) is hokum. Every day their mental capacities are relaxed a little more by the President, who has declared, most recently, that all poll results he does not like are fake news.
This photo appeared on Twitter after the presidential election:
This was left on my friend's windshield in Shelby, NC. pic.twitter.com/DHipuOFR1r— Stephanie McKellop (@McKellogs) November 11, 2016
I offer it in the context of this discussion, and Professor Edelson's article.
I now know that, if the President one day decides his close advisor Michelle Bachmann is correct, and America's gays are fifth columnists for the radical Muslim terrorists, my friends will lose no time turning me in, and not for being a radical Muslim terrorist.
Like so many before them, they believe Pastor Niemoller's comments were about others.
And like so many before them, they will be right.
Up to a point.