Syrian Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border, September 29, 2014.Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Trump’s immigration crackdown is an exercise in government cruelty.
On Friday, Donald Trump made the most plainly indefensible promise of his presidential campaign a reality. He suspended all refugee admissions to the US for 120 days, even as millions of displaced people from Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, and elsewhere are risking their lives to flee murderous governments and hellish warzones.
He barred all entry to the US for natives of seven Muslim countries, a ban so wide in scope that it prevents as many as 500,000 green-card holders from either leaving America, or coming back if they’re now abroad. These are people who have made America their permanent home, now subjected to travel restrictions of a kind last experienced in America by Japanese-Americans during World War II.
To try to make sense of what was happening, I found myself turning to the writing of another refugee, who, fleeing war and near-certain death, made her way to America some seven decades ago. Judith Shklar was born to a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, in 1928. In 1939, with the twin threats of Nazi and Soviet invasion mounting, the family made its way to Sweden. After the Nazi occupation of Norway raised fears that Sweden could meet the same fate, they fled again to the Soviet Union, trekked from Moscow to Vladivostok, and eventually made it to Seattle.
Upon arrival in America, they were “immediately arrested and detained as illegal aliens,” Shklar’s biographer Andreas Hess writes. A rabbi happened to find them in a detainment camp, along with mostly Chinese immigrants, and was able to convince authorities that these “decent” Jews did not belong with the likes of the Chinese. The family was released, ultimately settling in Montreal.
Shklar would return to America as an adult, as a professor at Harvard and one of the most influential political theorists of the late 20th century. Some political philosophers like to theorize about what goods governments should try to promote, the things that are best in life like freedom and happiness and dignity that should be maximized. Shklar devoted her life to considering the bads government should avoid and fight. She sought to identify a summum malum, an ultimate evil, “which all of us know and would avoid if only we could.” And she identified that ultimate evil as cruelty.
That, I think, is what is uniquely repulsive about Trump’s travel restrictions and refugee ban. It’s not just that they’re dumb, or wrong-headed, or unjustified. They’re cruel.
The refugee ban is America at its cruelest
Cruelty, to Shklar, was “the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter.”
Cruelty, she was careful to note, is not the same as sadism. Public cruelty, the cruelty of governments and the men and women who run them, has an end; it is meant to achieve something, whether that be racial purity and national rebirth, or a classless industrialized society, or more modest goals, like satisfying nativist urges to preserve the racial and religious character of the nation, or at least not let it change too much. And this kind of goal-oriented cruelty is enabled by the unique and vast ability of governments to instill fear in those over which they wield power.
It is easier to be cruel as a public official, because it is easier to see one’s victims as an abstraction. “When one begins with cruelty, an enormous gap between private and public life seems to open up,” Shklar wrote in her essay “Putting Cruelty First.” “It begins with the exposure of the feebleness and pettiness of the reasons offered for public enormities, and goes on to a sense that governments are unreal and remote from the actualities about which they appear to talk.”
The reasons for Trump’s ban on refugees could not be more feeble, and could not be more petty. It serves no actual security purpose. You have a better chance of getting killed by a train, or by your own clothes catching on fire, than by an immigrant terrorist attack. The odds of a refugee killing you in a terrorist strike are about 1 in 3.6 billion. That’s about four hundred times less likely than being hit by lightning twice. If you look back at significant terrorist attacks in the US like San Bernardino or the Pulse nightclub shooting or 9/11, exactly none of them would have been prevented by this policy.
And yet security is the weak reed upon which backers of this policy are justifying the enormous cruelty they’re inflicting upon their victims, victims who include 500,000 permanent residents of America and millions more who will be left to die in war zones or to face oppression from their home governments, or to drown in the sea as they fail to flee in makeshift rafts and boats. “Our number one responsibility is to protect the homeland. … This is why we passed bipartisan legislation in the wake of the Paris attacks to pause the intake of refugees,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement praising the refugee ban.
Maybe Ryan and Trump really are this deluded, and really do think in the face of all evidence to the contrary that this measure will somehow make America safer. Maybe they’re motivated by simple bigotry against Muslims.
But the seductive quality of public cruelty is that it needn’t matter. You don’t need to be motivated by sadism or bigotry or some other base, inhuman impulse. The sheer distance from your victims makes it possible to inflict horrors you never would’ve imagined yourself capable of committing face-to-face.
This action tears at the best principle we have to defend against immense cruelty: equality
Protesters at Kennedy airport.Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
The potential of public cruelty is deeply disturbing, and creates real fear about what governments are capable of. But Shklar was no anarchist. She was a liberal, in the sense of thinking that individuals need protection both from the state and by the state. And the latter is possible because liberal democracies can enact safeguards that prevent, or at least minimize, the expression of cruelty by public officials.
The most crucial of these safeguards, she wrote, was the guarantee of equality, of equal treatment. In unequal societies, where one group or set of individuals is privileged in power above others, that power differential creates the social distance necessary for the powerful to treat the less powerful with cruelty.
“If such social distances create the climate for cruelty, then a greater equality might be a remedy,” she wrote. “Even Machiavelli had known that one cannot rule one’s equals with cruelty, but only one’s inferior subjects.” Her egalitarianism stemmed from “a fear of the consequences of inequality and especially of the dazzling effect of power. It is an obvious result of putting cruelty first.”
You don’t need to imagine absolute monarchs or the totalitarians of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to see what this means. As University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey has written, a whole region of the United States — the former Confederacy — was under authoritarian rule from the 1890s until the slow collapse of Jim Crow in the 1940s-80s. And just as in any other authoritarian regime, the American authoritarian states fostered inequalities that enabled mass cruelty. Today we look back in naive horror and ask how lynchings could’ve been announced in advance in newspapers as though they were parades, how law enforcement could’ve looked the other way or even participated, how witnesses could keep body parts of murdered black men as souvenirs from the festivities. This is how. Social inequality, social distance, breeds cruelty.
And we should not shy away from the role of President Trump and this order in particular in fostering and promoting that kind of social inequality. Even when Trump tries to limit the effects of his order, the social ramifications of the president mandating discrimination on the basis of national origin will make the consequences worse than he intended.
Already, refugees in transit — a group explicitly exempted per Trump’s executive order — have been detained at American airports. At John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, a lawyer for detained Iraqi refugees (refugees let in for working with the US government in Iraq during our occupation, whose lives there were endangered for helping America) asked who he needed to talk to to stop this. “Call Mr. Trump,” a border agent replied.
“US Border patrol is deciding reentry for green card holders on a case by case basis – questions abt political views, chking facebook, etc,” tweeted immigration lawyer Mana Yegani. This, too, is far afield from anything the executive order allows. But it is exactly what one should expect to happen when law enforcement officials are told by the president to discriminate. A declaration from on high that inequality based on national origin will be policy leads to social inequality and distance that empowers micro-level government officials to act with arbitrary cruelty.
Cruelty can be resisted. America has done it before.
The shocking nature of Trump’s actions, and their violation of American ideals of equality and equal treatment, can tempt one into comforting patriotic denunciations: that this is un-American, goes against our history, goes against everything our country stands for.
The truth is that this is very American, very in keeping with the worst that America has to offer. We are the country that passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, as whites in California decided they were sick of competing with the Chinese laborers who merely years earlier had connected the nation by rail. We are the country that passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which fully banned Arab and Asian immigration, and all but banned that of Africans, Italians, and Jews. We are the country that turned away the St. Louis in 1939, sending a boat of nearly 1,000 people, almost all German Jews, back to Europe, where 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust. We are the country that detained Judith Shklar’s family until ultimately deciding that Jews were somewhat better than Chinese people and letting them go.
The fact of the matter is that immigration, and waves of refugees especially, always sparks a nativist backlash in the United States. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has noted, Cuban-Americans arriving on the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and Haitians fleeing chaos in 1990s were met with fear too.
But we needn’t give into fear, and in those two cases, we did not. We were improving on our worst impulses. We let many Cubans and Haitians in nonetheless — not enough as we should have, but many. In 1999, we didn’t just bomb Serbia to help besieged Kosovars — we airlifted thousands of them to America too.
The largest, most admirable action the US has taken in this regard came in the 1970s, after the failure of the American war in Vietnam. The US had killed hundreds of thousands of people, an estimated 150-500,000 in Cambodian airstrikes alone. It was one of the most horrifying and indefensible incidents in the history of American foreign policy. And the Ford and Carter administrations, to their considerable credit, wound up letting more than 800,000 Southeast Asians come to America, including many Vietnamese fleeing the Communist government, and thousands more Cambodians fleeing all-out genocide by the Khmer Rouge.
This was a controversial action. Even many American liberals opposed letting in so many. “Senator George McGovern, a prominent critic of US participation in the war, believed the refugees represented some of the most corrupt and even bloodthirsty officials of the discredited South Vietnamese government,” historian Robert Schulzinger writes. “Democratic Representatives Jack Brooks, John Conyers, and Barbara Jordan objected to the open-ended admission of Asian refugees who might take work away from the black working class … Most Americans wanted nothing so much as to forget the Vietnam War, and Vietnamese refugees were a constant reminder.”
But Ford and Carter let them come anyway, not just because it was the decent thing that any moral human would do, but because it was a particular obligation of the United States government after it unleashed war and chaos upon the region. We broke these people’s homes. The least we could do is give them a new one.
Now, thirteen years after the US invaded Iraq and plunged the entire region into chaos and bloodshed, after ISIS grew out of that anarchy to menace the people of Iraq and Syria, after American efforts to prevent the disintegration of Syria failed, President Trump apparently feels no similar sense of obligation. For all his false insistence that he opposed the war in Iraq, he sees no American duty to help its victims pick up the pieces over a decade later.
Gerald Ford — hardly a great man, but a decent one — looked at a region America had destroyed and offered mercy. Donald Trump looks upon another region we destroyed and offers nothing. Nothing, that is, but cruelty.