Opening the Cage: Taking Back the Power

I guess the word that I would use for the past couple of days is triggered. I think that all of humanity recoils reflexively from the notion of children forcibly separated from parents for any reason other than their own safety. I know that I have tremendous trouble even reading the articles about what is being done to those seeking safety and a better life in our country, and to their children who have not even made such a choice.

As a Jew, this natural human repulsion is intensified by the collective retelling of the separating of Jewish children from their parents throughout history, from Egypt when they were condemned to die, through thousands of years of periodic forcible conversion, to Nazi Germany, wherein, in full circle, children and parents were condemned to die in numbers never before considered, having often been forcibly separated first.

So to, as a person with a disability, do I feel this most keenly. As documented in the NCD report Rocking the Cradle, on which I am privileged to have been a signatory, we document the history, and current practice in some states, of forcibly separating children from their disabled parents, often with little more than outdated prejudice or belief to support the decision.

What this means is that I have spent more time than many listening to the painful stories of parents grieving their children ripped from their loving arms, and children who know only that a government official is removing them from mommy or daddy.

Also, because of the wonderful work that Kramer Levin does for people seeking asylum, I have heard more than most people ever want to know about the horrors from which people are running when they come to this country, child in arms, seeking sanctuary.

Sanctuary. When we define this word as a place of refuge or safety, we often do not think about the relationship between it and the rooms in which so many of us pray. And yet, these are not two different words, but rather the same word. The reason that we use a word that literally means place of holiness to refer the place of refuge or safety is because of the historical practice that churches were in fact places to go and be safe from various coercive government actions.

But I like words, and I like the Jewish way of interpreting things where we are not particularly concerned with which came first in holy interpretation. So, I like the idea that we use the word sanctuary because it is so very holy to reach out our hands, and make a place of safety for those who have been persecuted. By granting sanctuary, asylum, we make this country the holy city on the hill that many of its founders envisioned, even as they fell short.

Given this, it would be maddening enough that we see the grounds for asylum narrowing-a retraction of our holy embrace from those who are fleeing persecution of a type that we have deemed no longer worth our notice. But our President and our Attorney General did not stop there. Now, the US has gone from holy refuge to barbarism reminiscent of the pre-final solution Nazis as we rip children from their parents and throw them into cages for the ostensible crime of using an established norm of international law to seek a place of safety.

Let us hammer this home. We can disagree, reasonably about the welcome the United States does or does not ask and to those seeking a better life. I favor a more open policy, some may favor a more restrictive one. We can even reasonably differ as to which population and which circumstances we believe should trigger a right of safety in the US.

But I just do not understand how anyone could believe that the “crime” of trying to fit within or expand those guidelines makes it okay to throw children into cages away from their parents.

Detain. Deport. Some think we do this too little, and most in my social spheres believe that we do it too much, but that is a conversation for another time. Whether you are pushing for open borders or zero immigration or anywhere in between, can we stop for a moment and realize that separation of children from parents in the absence of a safety concern is evil, and caging children is monstrous.

Just listen to those two words. Caging. Children. Caging children. It makes me want to vomit, or scream, or rage,-or all three

But we are powerless, right? Or at least limited to a screed like this one, a Facebook post, or a contact to a representative who cannot legislatively override the President without two thirds of his or her peers? No.

At least until the hypothetical invention of mind control, the power of government to execute its will is limited to its ability to influence the actions of the human beings charged with executing that will. The reason that the Nuremberg defense “I was just following orders” is rejected the world over is because certain orders should be disobeyed. With the possible exception of nuclear annihilation, no government edict can be implemented without the participation of its vast array of agents.

In a previous era of injustice, Andrew Jackson famously undercut the power of the Supreme Court, in indicating that he would not use executive branch resources to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision that the state of Georgia was committing injustices against Native Americans. In an apocryphal construction, folk history records the notion that Jackson said “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

This drives home the point that a law or policy not executed may as well not exist. What if every person of conscience were to join together and simply refuse to execute the administration’s policy. It would be toothless.

So how about this? In addition to venting our feelings in our social media echo chambers, and even the more important work of protest and of contacting our elected officials, what if we all tried to figure out how to reach the federal agents who received the orders to throw children in cages. If one of them refuses, that agent will be fired. If all of them refused, and said this is not my America, the order would be nullified, if not rescinded.

We are watching in not so slow motion what happens when the power and machinery of our government is turned to dysfunction, plutocracy and evil. In five months, we get to begin that most American of revolutions that happens every two years at the ballot box. In 29 months, we get to complete it as we elect a new (I hope) President.

As we face the injustice and dysfunction, we must be reminded, however, that the power of the government to perpetrate this injustice is the power with which we collectively vested in the it. When that power is used to do something we cannot condone, sometimes we must practice civil disobedience, and take it back. One person might feel powerless, but together we are power personified. Even as we work to change our government, let us unite immediately to stop injustice. If not now, when?

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