In 1963, Hannah Arendt released Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The narrative follows the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was effectively middle management in the Nazi regime, who argued that he was only following orders. It’s hard to not see echoes of Arendt’s work today, in the various decisions of the Trump administration, in specific in their zero tolerance policy on immigration, which includes the forceable separation and detention of children from their families. The social media landscape lit up with “debates” on the matter, with Trump supporters attributing blame to previous, and typically Democratic leadership, or expressing frustration at what they saw the erasure of their own opportunities, either by way of immigrants taking their jobs, or soaking up resources that would otherwise go to causes that they found equally pertinent.
Like Eichmann though, the baseline defense is over the “legality” of the issue, which both suggests that each detainee came here illegally, and more importantly, that the law is an infallible doctrine that must always be strictly and blindly followed. Our country not only has a long and rich history of civil disobedience, but would not exist without it. The United States is marred by that same history of violence, of capitulating to the worst in humanity, before making progress towards equality. Look at the Civil Right’s or Women’s Suffrage Movements to illustrate but a few of those disparities.
“Our country not only has a long and rich history of civil disobedience, but would not exist without it.”
During the summer a few years ago, I was the victim of a robbery. The perpetrator cased my house, and upon determining (falsely) that the property was empty, broke in through a back entry by shattering the glass. While I was not home at the moment, my family was. After some initial uncertainty as to whether or not their was someone in our house, the police were called for their assistance. This is what happened.
The thief rang our doorbell to see if anyone was home. No one answered, because they were at the time, trying to get some much needed sleep. Approximately 5 to 10 minutes later, sounds are heard. Is it the family we’d expected that morning or something else? Not long after that, the police were called, arriving within 10-15 minutes (or perhaps less) of the initial call. They confirmed the robbery, and evacuated the house. I arrived home to see a bike along my back fence, ostensibly the vehicle for the thief. I parked and tried to go into the house, but was stopped by an officer that told me that a bomb dog was called out to ensure that there was no one else hiding in the premise. In that moment, I thought my family was still inside, and had to discover on my own that that was not the case.
They stole some musical equipment, credit cards and ID, a beverage, and worst of all, a vehicle. As we had a rough timeline of the event, it became evident that the perp was likely still in motion, as they couldn’t have had much time to leave. I asked an officer if they had thought to call the vehicle in. They hadn’t. They were unmoved by our plight.
We picked up the pieces and made call after call to the insurance companies. The detective assigned to the case called us within two days to let us know that a suspect was found. It wasn’t because of some gumshoe investigation work on their end, but because they could tie him to the sale of some of our property to local pawn shops. The perp just happened to get pulled over for a petty offense not that long afterwards, although not in our vehicle, which gave them an in, so to speak.
Rather than talking to the thief, the detective had excuses. First he was busy, then on vacation, then working a charity event as security, and then again on vacation, but never handling our case, which was time sensitive to the insurance companies. Ultimately, the thief was connected with a host of robberies, connected by way of what he sold to pawn shops, although he was never connected with grand theft auto. We were told that because of the uncertainty of that, he couldn’t be charged; maybe there was someone else with him.
In our case, “the law” only cared about the administrative details of their efforts. They didn’t care about the collateral damage to our family. They cared about the statistic that “catching” this thief represented to their success rate. We tried to discuss this with law enforcement and state attorneys, but were met with blank stares that read “you’re on your own.”
We’re fortunate people. We have a strong support base of people that care about us and love us, and are privileged to have opportunities to overcome our grievances. Was this a bad situation? Yes. Did the police uphold their basic responsibilities? Yes. But in this case and in many other anecdotal stories like this, they didn’t and don’t really seem to care beyond that.
My story is not the same as a Nazi trial and it’s certainly not like families being torn apart. But as a member of a privileged community (I’m a white, straight male), there was still little empathy for the situation. This isn’t to say that we merited special attention, but to keep in mind that we’re the lucky ones; if they cared so little for us, how might they feel to people worse off, or who they may harbor some prejudice towards? Police violence perpetrated by minorities indicates that white people are more likely to be shot, but that same data fails to account for the scale between whites and minorities. Taking that same scale into consideration, even crime is punished at that same level of disproportion. So while my experience is minuscule in comparison, it allowed me the smallest taste of that apathy in our policies, and one that is sorely lacking.
“While my experience is minuscule in comparison, it allowed me the smallest taste of that apathy in our policies, and one that is sorely lacking.”
Members of the community wanted our thief to get shot. They wished my family members had guns to protect themselves. But none of us wanted that. Surveying what his thefts and cross referencing that with trivia we (easily) learned about his life, it wasn’t hard to create a profile of desperation: this is someone who needed something, most likely drugs. I don’t want him incarcerated or killed. I don’t and didn’t even in the darkest moments of my anger and insecurity want his child to grow up fatherless. I want to see people in these situations give restitution to their victims, and find the help that they need.
Now imagine that same empathy applied to immigrants. Let’s not assume for a moment that that population fails to recognize the difficulties posed to their flight into the United States. I’m not a historian and sadly, I’m ignorant to the plight of many of the people seeking asylum here, again a reflection of my privilege, but your empathy and understanding takes almost none of your energy. Creating otherness in the world contributes nothing. Ripping families apart or using the landscape to force immigrants into treacherous, life threatening situations, people seeking refuge in what they consider a beacon of hope, that’s barbaric. To the Eichmann’s of the world, accept that all you want, know you are not only accepting this, but that this is not a topic we agree to disagree on. It’s a tragedy and an international embarrassment that has already had ramifications that may yet haunt us.
Ask Martin Luther King Jr. if the law is moral. Ask Rosa Parks. Ask Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ask John Adams. Ask John Brown. Ask the Rolling Quads. And then ask yourself it that’s okay with you for your community or any other, to not only refuse to help, but to harden our hearts against anyone that isn’t superficially like us.