For once, President Trump’s fickleness is a blessing. Putting families desperately fleeing violence and/or poverty behind bars together is preferable to ripping babies from their mother’s breast, much as waterboarding is better than burning people at the stake, though it is still morally repugnant and — while it is a policy that precedes this president — it is one that contradicts our most cherished American values.
Of course, neither Trump nor his cabinet are the ones getting their hands dirty. It is the lower-level employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who are executing this dirty policy. It is those agents who have the most immediate choices to make.
And they are making choices. In the 2016 election, the National Border Patrol Council, the union of the Border Patrol agents, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time: Donald Trump. The union president, Brandon Judd, a 20-year veteran of the patrol, has been a vocal supporter of Trump’s immigration policy. In a video bouquet, “Make America Confident Again,” Judd proclaimed that “Trump has accomplished more in one year to secure our border than any other president.”
Many agents agree, and feel that the cuffs, so to speak, are off them with this administration’s zero-tolerance approach. Others, though, surely have doubts about doing Trump’s bidding. On Father’s Day earlier this month, there were dads working for DHS dragging parents away from their children.
As a professor of philosophy, I try to teach ethics, and one observation that I feel confident in passing along is the admonition that moral quandaries seldom announce that they are coming down the street. Just the opposite, they leap out of the closet like a pirate with a knife in his teeth. And there you are. You must decide what to do and in a deeper sense – who you are.
An order is an order and many would like to imagine that is the end of it. But it’s not. As the existentialists taught, human beings are blessed and cursed with the capacity for choice.
Bob Dylan sings, “I pity the poor immigrant” and so do I; I also pity the poor immigration agent who has to chose whether or not to obey orders to treat refugee families as though they were a brood of violent criminals. Assuming he has a heart and some qualms, maybe the agent tells himself that his first duty is to take care of his own family, even if that duty demands that he break up other families or slam them together in the slammer.
Kierkegaard taught that the greatest impediment to leading an upright life is the traitor within us all, that is, our capacity for self-deception. Perhaps the guards tell themselves what I have heard some of the politicos telling themselves, namely, “Who knows if these kids are the victims of sex traffickers?” Or again, maybe they whisper in their inner ear, “Doing this is nasty but it will deter further attempts at illegal entry.” Or again, maybe their moral narcotic is hoodwinking themselves with the lullaby that everything will work out.
There is a bounty of rationalizations that we can come up with when we need to do the wrong thing in order to do what we take to be the most important thing, namely, keeping that paycheck coming in. But let’s be clear – most of the grave evils in the modern era have been oiled by people understandably fearful of losing their posts and being unable to provide for their kin. In that sense, the family, which many take to be the core of moral values, can also become the most powerful moral temptation.
For example, given the dangers, Martin Luther King Jr. could have easily stepped back from the work he was called to and explained, “I’d go to Memphis for the demonstrations but I have a family and so let someone else fight for justice.” Don’t forget it – there have been many moments in history when devotion to family and duty were warring commitments.
From listening to the tapes coming out of detention centers, it is evident that there were agents driving the wedge between families who are indifferent to or even savor the surging feeling of power that comes with their dastardly work. And yet, I suspect that many if not most guards grind their teeth and reach for an antacid when a supervisor orders them to lock up a family whose only sin might be trying to escape ending up in a ditch in Guatemala.
There are moral either/ors that can loom up in any career. I feel great sympathy for those financially strapped and morally conflicted guards who go about their job of incarcerating children, with or without their parents. But for that singular individual who will not let himself be morally handcuffed and so hands in his badge and handcuffs, I have nothing but admiration and admiration provides a line of sight on our moral judgments. On my reckoning, border agents ought to resist implementing Trump’s barbarous policies aimed at stopping what he tellingly terms an “infestation.”
It is true, we are all complicit in the policies of our nation; nevertheless there are knife-edged times when a person finds him or herself on the front lines of a moral decision. For agents of the Border Patrol and ICE, the question had been: Will you or won’t you tear this child away from her mother?
Who knows what it will be next week.
Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and the author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide (Harper, 2018)