A Moral Nadir
These children are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become. — James Baldwin
In the cold winter of 1944, at the nadir of depravity that pushed dehumanization to its logical endpoint, authorities at Ravensbruck set up what was blandly called the Kinderzimmer, or “children’s room”. Nazi authorities at this camp for women had previously aborted the fetuses of pregnant inmates upon arrival. Now, however, they permitted pregnant women to carry full term. The establishment of the Kinderzimmer at first gave the captive women a glimmer of minimal hope. Yet in the twisted torment beloved of the Nazi regime, the newborns, upon birth, were sent to the Kinderzimmer, placed on mattresses, and simply left to the ravages of isolation. Each infant screamed until starvation; their mothers could only listen to the cries while forbidden to access the locked room. In a particularly macabre twist, some babies were attacked and eaten alive by rats. When this horror was reported to an SS nurse, she reportedly laughed.
Obviously, the US government’s treatment of migrant children on the southern border is a far cry from the bottomless depravity of Ravensbruck. Yet the tale of the Kinderzimmer reminds us of an eternal truth, relevant within our time: however we process even the worst of humanity, our moral sensibilities curdle into a more full-throated rage when it is helpless children who bear the direct weight of adult brutality. The suffering of adults wounds, but that of children rips into the conscience with an ache of fathomless heartbreak. We have accepted the old Roman proverb Homo homini lupus — “Man to his fellow Man is a wolf”- with resignation. But we have never- can never- accept the deliberate cruelty which adult men and women mete out to defenseless children with the same feeble shrug of the world weary.
As is now well known, and despite attempts to blame other parties for unilateral action, the American government has implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy that requires separating children from their parents as they try to enter the United States, both illegally, and lawfully seeking asylum. The administration has virtually guaranteed family separation by two new decisions: first, the decision to charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry, and second, the decision to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than waiting to see if they qualify for asylum. None of this is ordained by law; both the Bush and Obama administrations detained families together in ICE custody. By determining that all entry seekers were charged in federal criminal court, the Trump administration guaranteed separation, as children may not be brought into federal prison.
The administration has apparently little plan to reunite families, and worse, as is now public, has in some cases deported parents without being able to recover their children first. Former ICE chief John Sandweg, speaking the unthinkable with commendable brevity, stated simply that “Permanent separation. It happens.” Elaborating, he said that “you could be creating thousands of orphans in the US that one day could be eligible for citizenship when adopted.” Orwell would appreciate the doublespeak: only today can we create orphans of children whose parents are very much alive.
As is so often the case in deliberate measures of performative cruelty, the medium is the message. The policies do not as an unfortunate adjunct result in child separation; rather, that is the deliberate intent. The administration has been unrepentant, citing everything from misapplied Bible verses to nonexistent “Democrat” laws to mask its true purpose: by terrorizing children, it intends to deter their parents. The logic is not one of immigration law but rather that of area bombing, torching civilians to compel change in governmental policy. Indeed, the entire purpose of classifying entrants as criminals is done to avoid, rather than comply with existing rules concerning migrant child detention. Understand this and live within the truth: a nation which proclaims itself the progenitor of modern human rights has chosen child abuse as deliberate policy.
You do not need to read this piece to know that the policy embodies a deep estrangement from humanitarian norms, as the stories which have thusfar emerged have shocked the conscience. Toddlers asking unknown teenagers to change their diapers. Voices wailing “mami” and “papa” over and over from the coldness of cages built to hold them. Workers instructed to separate hugging siblings. More than one hundred children under the age of four caged away from any relative. A Honduran father driven to the despair of suicide after his three year old was forcibly wrenched from his arms. And in an uncomfortable echo of the demons of Ravensbruck, parents deprived of their children after being told those children were being taken briefly to bathe.
Opposition has been fierce, with a growing number of Republicans finding the meek courage of their dwindling convictions. Church leaders have awakened from their long slumber to denounce the Trump plan, and even former First Lady Laura Bush made a rare entry into the political arena to denounce the policy of child separation. Yet the dire nature of what is being lost, both civilizationally and individually, is masked behind the androgyne verbiage of immigration law. The President, after all, has the responsibility to enforce the law as he sees fit, does he not? We cannot take in every refugee who appears on our borders, can we? The good faith of difficult policy decisions has been weaponized in the void of presidential proclamations proclaiming lurching shithole-country led invasion. Caught in between, truth is drowning in the muddy puddle of lies. What the assembled protesters need is a clear legal and moral standard around which to rally, to keep the focus on the ethical landmine upon which we’ve stepped. Broader immigration law can wait. Children’s human rights are what matter now.
In 1989, in the halcyon weeks after the fall of the Berlin wall, the UN General Assembly adopted the landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) treaty. The Reagan and Bush administrations had been heavily involved in the negotiation of the specific terms, many of which draw from US law. The treaty itself binds signatory governments to the basic concepts which underlie children’s human rights in their own development, safety, and growth. Most prominently, CRC provides protection from violence, abuse, and neglect, and memorializes a right to be raised by their parents, the right to an education, and a standard of living adequate for his or her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Of the 196 countries in the United Nations, 195 have ratified CRC.
Except for the United States. We are the lone nation in the entire UN which has not ratified CRC; worse, no President has even seen fit to send the treaty to Congress, doubtless understanding full well that a treaty requiring nothing more than treating children as the valued proto-adults they are would be doomed to rejection in the Senate. Objections have generally broken along the battle between social conservatism and progressivism that defines our time and splits our nation. Speaking in 2017, Travis Weber, the director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council objected to the treaty because it might force U.S. lawmakers to recognize rights of same-sex parents, provide teens access to reproductive-health services, and override parental desire to use corporal punishment.
Yet in the current emergency, the CRC contains detailed provisions which suggest a legal, moral, and philosophical underpinning for the coordination of opposition. The Preamble states as a guiding principle that every child, “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,” something presumably difficult when ripped from their desperate parents. Article III provides that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Article IX is even more specific:
States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.
Article IX continues: “States Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests.”
The best interests of the child. The repeated phrase is not a coincidence. Domestic U.S. law often looks, in contexts as varied as divorce and adoption, to ascertain what of a myriad of different considerations are best for the child. We do this because of our understanding that children, being minors, are powerless within a system of adult foibles and failures, and that if there is a lodestar of guidance, it should be toward protection of those lacking agency over their own lives. That they are children impose greater, not lesser, responsibility. In pure abdication of that responsibility, the administration has all but admitted that sending migrant children to Sessions Summer Camps is not in the best interests of the children. Their tears are simply the most tangible gristle and mortar for the desired border wall to be extorted from Congress.
The government, having acted in the best interests of everyone but the child, has a special responsibility. Article 20 specifies that
A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State.
Special protection and assistance, whatever it may be, is not a tent camp in the Texas sun. Yet with an astonishing 250 children per day now being forcibly removed from parents, who can assume any such protection or assistance is coming? Who can assume that “special protection” includes being dumped in a cage, alone, at the mercy of an unforgiving state? Does a migrant child need to die in a Sessions Camp before we see that whatever “special protection and assistance” is, surely, this is not it?
Refugees are specifically contemplated in CRC. Article 22 imposes on nations a requirement to “ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status …shall.. receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are Parties.” One wonders what humanitarian assistance is rendered by forced separation and psychological trauma. That the question even need be asked in angry repose says all that needs to be said about the failures of the United States government to live up to CRC.
The United States is obviously not going to ratify the CRC anytime soon. Trump would rather commission a statute to Marla Maples on the national lawn than give up his Bannonite dreams of white re-elevation. And yet that does not mean that the common language of CRC cannot supply logical, clear, and powerful resonance within the symphony of resistance. That the treaty has not been ratified by the Senate is of no consequence to the potency of its clarity. Nor is its inability to self-actualize normative adherence. Many argue that treaties lack power — after all, if the Assad government in Syria is a signatory to CRC, it must be toothless, one might say. Yet the history of human rights treaties, however checkered, reveals powerful examples of moral firepower standing down even the mightiest of oppressors.
Diplomats write treaties, but dissidents breathe the life of the ages into the text. In 1975, the Soviet Union and associated Communist dictatorships agreed with the Western democracies on the Helsinki Accords, which ostensibly was the bedrock of a détente between rival camps. The Soviets viewed Helsinki as valuable in recognizing the permanence of their Eastern European sphere of influence, and had no intention of complying with Article VII, which required “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” by each member state. Article VII to the Soviets was simply musty words on the page, to be immediately ignored. Yet for the dissidents of Eastern Europe, Helsinki became the galvanizing charge which unified opposition to the state. The Communists had signed Article VII; all the dissidents demanded was that they live up to its requirements. The Czech-based Charter 77 dissident group simply asked, again and again, why Prague had not lived up to its requirements under Article VII. Each response was a lie built upon another lie, until the nakedness of the riposte forced the whole tottering tower of coercion to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Helsinki became the dissidents’ lodestar. Whatever their reasoning in 1975, Helsinki was not an opportunity for the Communists; it was a trap, for the energy of truth built upon the inability to answer the simple charge into a wave that smashed down the towers of dictatorial oppression.
Helsinki shows us that the simple moral clarity of international human rights codified in treaties, when weaponized by dissidents, can muster the firepower to topple empires. The wisdom of the clear requirements of CRC- the best interests of the child — provide a unified, coherent, and morally upright argument to lay at the feet of even the most recalcitrant government. The force of law and international recognition burnished dissidents with the sheen of legitimacy in a prior era. With the entirety of the world looking on, they can again. The irrefutable rightness of the commands of CRC can be and should be the theoretical underpinning of the opposition to institutionalized child abuse. Although we, unlike the Helsinki-era Soviets have not ratified CRC, the moral commandments encased therein nonetheless remain a fulsome explanation of the best of American values. Let them be a guide to resistance. Emblazon them on every protest sign across America.
That is for the here and now. If the coalescing opposition to American brutality on the border can muster the courage and the outrage to push public opinion to stop this policy, if we can utilize the moment to recognize the need to Sessions-proof our nation for the future, ratification of CRC could be a logical end point once, as one hopes, the current emergency forces a moral awakening. There is, after all, a precedent. In 1948, the UN General Assembly passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A seemingly straightforward plea to humanity to never again repeat the repulsions of the Kinderzimmer, the treaty fell victim to the same forces of conservatism which have derailed CRC. After one of the first accusations of genocide submitted to the UN after the Convention entered into force took forceful aim at Jim Crow, the American right fused racial fears with concerns over attempts to limit American sovereignty to defeat ratification of the treaty. From Truman in 1948 onward, every President save Eisenhower urged ratification. As of the mid-1980s, it appeared that the United States, ostensibly the greatest empire of liberty in the world, would never ratify a convention requiring member states not to commit the worst crime ever devised.
In 1985, however, the normally sure-footed Ronald Reagan paid a visit to Germany’s Bitburg cemetery. Beneath its grounds lay 49 members of the dreaded Waffen SS. Coupled with Reagan’s initial disinclination to visit a concentration camp on his trip, the Bitburg blunder launched a paroxysm of protest. Reagan made the matter worse when equating the oppressors with their victims, stating of the soldiers that “they were victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” A bipartisan request by members of Congress to forego the visit and angry denunciations from veterans and Jewish groups proved to no avail. Reagan went ahead with the visit, but the bungle of Bitburg cost him political capital. In an effort to repair the breach, he sought to push for the passage of the long-stalled Genocide convention.
That the convention was even still pending was due to the Sisyphusian efforts of Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire. From 1967 through 1986, Proxmire made an astounding 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor demanding the passage of the Genocide convention. In 1986, with the Reagan administration now putting the weight of its efforts toward passage, the dam broke. The Senate consented to ratification in 1986 and Congress passed enabling legislation in 1988. The United States had joined the Genocide convention.
The effect was not immediate; indeed, the most noticeable early effect was to take great pains not to admit that genocide was occurring in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda, lest the United States as the lone superpower incur any responsibility to act. Yet the effects of the treaty passage did have a longer-term effect. The weight of American support put the world’s most powerful state on the side of international commitment and law. In 1999, speaking to the nation on the start of the Kosovar war, President Clinton disavowed earlier mealy-mouthed disinclinations to uphold the treaty, justifying NATO action in Kosovo by reference to what occurred in Bosnia: “This was genocide in the heart of Europe, not in 1945, but in 1995.” Trials of both national and individual perpetrators of the genocide followed. American ratification had mattered after all.
Once, one hopes, the current nationalistic fever breaks in America, and a new administration comes to the fore, perhaps we can repeat the effect of the Bitburg gaffe and use this current view into the depths of hell to step back from the breach, ratify the CRC, and make our own domestic proclamation of adherence to the principles of decency.
For now, however, time is short. A senior Trump administration official reportedly estimated to the Washington Examiner that 30,000 migrant children could be separated by August. By any reasonable definition, that qualifies as a moral emergency. Nietsche’s observation that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you has never been more apt. The storm we are visiting upon the most helpless among us will no doubt rebound within ourselves, further sickening the ethical webbing of the nation. If we as modern dissidents can demand our own government respect the rights of the children as enshrined in international law, cleaving to the principles laid out so clearly in CRC, perhaps we can effectuate a sea change within the nation’s consciousness and eventually, our own laws as well. For now, protest, donate, fight, and march. Let CRC’s requirements be the guide to hold the administration accountable to an international understanding of justice. What we visit on the least of us, we normalize for us all.