Thanks to a series of news reports over the past few days, we now know that the Trump administration's vicious family separation policy last summer has been followed up by a comparably cruel policy of holding child migrants in detention centers under conditions that resemble torture.
The question is why the United States — one of the richest countries in the world and one that loves to wrap itself in a mythology of moral righteousness — would be acting to produce suffering on such a massive scale.
One option has been proposed by journalist Adam Serwer in one of the most widely debated essays of the Trump era. The article's title — "The cruelty is the point"— effectively conveyed its argument. Trump's supporters actively enjoy inflicting suffering on those they hate and fear, and his administration is more than happy to give them what they want.
There's just one problem with this explanation: The Trump administration has been doing nothing to publicize the conditions in which children are being held and abused in detention centers. It's journalists, often over the objection of administration officials, who have alerted the country to what's happening along the border.
But if the cruelty isn't the point, what is? Why is the United States treating children so inhumanely — cramming them into filthy, overcrowded pens, underfeeding them, and denying them medical treatment and even toothbrushes?
One possibility is that the cruelty is intended to serve as a deterrent, with the Trump administration hoping word of the harsh treatment will spread back across the border to those contemplating a journey to the United States, making them more reluctant to come. The problem with this interpretation is that, once again, the administration appears to be doing nothing on its own to spread word of conditions in the detention centers. Then there's the fact that this kind of deterrence, intentional or not, already failed last year after news broke of the administration's nightmarish policy of family separation. The families kept coming regardless, driven on by awful conditions at home and the unquenchable promise of a better life in the U.S.
Could it be, instead, that the administration hopes to use the suffering children as hostages in negotiations with Congress, including the Democrat-controlled House, over funding for Trump's border wall? I certainly wouldn't put it past them to try such thuggish tactics — effectively torturing thousands of children to win a few inches of political territory. Yet this, too, seems like a post hoc explanation that only makes sense after stories of child abuse were published by journalists. What good is hostage taking if the party from whom you hope to extract concessions doesn't know hostages are being held in the first place? And anyway, there is no reason at all to assume that Democrats would capitulate under such conditions. It's been standard government policy for decades not to negotiate with terrorists.
Another possibility is that the administration fears treating migrants and their children too leniently. Just as many Republicans fear the needy becoming dependent on government handouts and so believe in imposing sometimes harsh means-testing, work requirements, and other obstacles and penalties on those drawing on welfare, food stamps, and other benefits, so they may be inclined to force migrants (even child migrants) to endure added hardships on the way to possible admission to the United States. Why conservatives might think it necessary and humane to inflict such additional hardships on people who have often endured considerable suffering on a journey of over a thousand miles to reach the southern border of the U.S. eludes me. But it's possible that such convictions explain the actions of the administration.
But perhaps the simplest and most straightforward explanation makes the most sense. Maybe the cruelty, far from being the point, is actually beside the point. Maybe the administration, from the president on down to detention center guards, doesn't care one bit about the health and well-being of the children in its care. Maybe it views them as a nuisance, as an irritant, as a matter of relative moral indifference.
In theory, taking a stand for the importance of borders and citizenship, even favoring sharp cuts to immigration, should be compatible with treating asylum seekers with ordinary human decency — providing them with food, shelter, a place to sleep, routine medical care, and, yes, toothbrushes. Yet the Trump administration seems determined to show that in practice the two don't easily go together. When the government makes policy based on the assumption that those who come from outside the political community deserve to be kept out, the result is that those outsiders are treated as wholly other, as members of a tribe very different than and also inferior to our own.
With ICE gearing up to fulfill President Trump's demand to hunt down and deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants, we face an extremely ominous situation. How likely is it that an administration that has inflicted such gratuitous suffering on children will insist that these raids are conducted humanely, treating suspects with ordinary respect, decency, and restraint? Not likely at all. Unless, that is, the administration — and the White House in particular — has reason to think that its abuses will be widely reported, inspiring broad-based disgust that could hurt it politically.
When cruelty is beside the point, the only way to inspire restraint is the fear of political consequences. Which means it's up to the rest of us to show impassioned solidarity with the victims of administration cruelty and neglect.