The drama of President Trump’s ban on immigration played out on multiple levels this past week; legal, as multiple courts weighed in, culminating in one granting an injunction that put the ban temporarily on hold; politically, as protesters clogged city streets at home and abroad; and factually, as the slap-dash way in which the order was implemented became increasingly clear. And then, of course, there were the absurdist moments, as when Trump tweeted about the “so called judge” who stayed the ban, perhaps unaware that the judge’s initial order was only a first step – the same jurist this week will listen to the administration’s lawyers attempt to justify the ban before he rules whether to make the stay permanent.
All of which served to distract us and detract from the profound pain and suffering endured by the refuges directly affected by the order. But the details were available everywhere. Stories of parents, and even children, prevented from rejoining their families. Of individuals who had spent their entire lives in enormous refugee camps, who had quit their jobs and sold everything they owned, and who were then sent back, bewildered, their hopes dashed. If you haven’t listened to this week’s This American Life podcast already, it does a masterful job of telling their stories. It makes for heartbreaking listening.
Perhaps no statement over the past week summed up the callousness of the administration so much as this one made by an unnamed administration official, as reported in the Washington Post two days into the travel ban:
Everything is going exactly according to plan, nothing has changed since the order was signed, and the news media need to calm down their “false, misleading, inaccurate, hyperventilating” coverage of the “fractional, marginal, minuscule percentage” of international travelers who have been simply “set aside for further questioning” for a couple hours on their way into the greatest country in the world. “It really is a massive success story in terms of implementation on every single level..,”
How many things are wrong with that characterization, later repeated by Kellyanne Conway and other advisors to the president? First, there are the misstatements themselves. Individuals were not only “set aside,” but often set aside in handcuffs, for no reason. Next, there were the hundreds on the verge of a new life who were turned back from airports abroad. And finally, the thousands who have waited years for clearance to come to America, whose hopes and dreams have now been put on hold, their futures once more uncertain. But most tellingly, there are the words, “fractional, marginal, miniscule percentage,” bizarrely suggesting that if the denominator is large enough, the suffering of the people represented by the numerator becomes irrelevant through a sort of amoral rounding process.
And then there was the goal of the ban itself, which was not in fact to make Americans safer (they already were, with respect to the refugees in question), but to fulfill a baseless campaign promise. That promise was to commence “extreme vetting” of refugees, without ever stating what that would mean. It’s doubtful Donald Trump knows what this means either, given that the announced purpose of the travel ban is to provide time to study current practices. Never mind the fact that those practices are already extreme, and take years to complete. The premise of the ban is that anything the Obama administration was responsible for must be “terrible”. Or at least it was expedient to claim so in the pursuit of that ultimate piece of real estate, the one situated on Pennsylvania Avenue.
There was a time when America was about justice for all, and the defense of the rights of the individual was paramount. And not just the rights of Americans, but of individuals anywhere and everywhere. The Trump administration seems to embrace a different, mathematical approach. The lives of Americans are manifestly worth more than those of non-Americans. And sacrificing the welfare of a small group is a quite acceptable consequence if it will further the administration’s goals.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the way President Trump redeemed his campaign pledge was both ham-handed and arbitrary, striking out against a target of opportunity rather than a clear and present danger, and carried out with no care whatsoever to limit the collateral damage to helpless individuals whose only crime was to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And finally, there is this: it’s profoundly sad so many have felt it necessary to argue that America will be less safe rather than more as a result of the ban, due to the ideological ammunition it will provide to ISIS and other extremists. Why sad? Because once there was a time when exposing something as morally wrong was good enough. Today, that’s apparently no longer true.
That may be the most disillusioning realization of a very disappointing week: that in order to push back against immoral policies, we need to sink to the same level of self-interest as the administration to find efficacious arguments. In the era of Donald Trump, it’s not sufficient to argue that America has a moral duty to act justly to the helpless and poor.
Instead, it has to be all about us.