Children cooped up in cages crying and pleading with strangers for help. Migrant parents torn away from them, arrested and detained elsewhere. Public rage at the regime behind all of this. The equally loud outcry from those in power who justify their actions as a consequence of a long-standing problem inherited from previous administrations. This is what the past several weeks have been filled with as we, along with the rest of the world, watch what’s happening at our next door neighbor’s.
I am not offering an expert advice on the complex issue of illegal immigration and not questioning why a country cares about its border security. In fact, having the first-hand experience with (a different case of) violation of my home country’s state boundaries, I can understand the concern. At the same time, I empathize with the misery of those who ought to be fleeing from even greater evils in order to undertake the risk of embarking on such a dangerous journey. With the right combination of vested interest and fact-digging, a strong case can be made for more than one side to this issue. But I am not here to add fuel to either party’s arguments. I am here to remind that in the midst of this commotion taking place on either side of the physical border and the political fence, we are forgetting something else. Here is why it’s important to speak about this now:
Blind Compliance vs Common Sense
There is a reason why every establishment in our society has rules, policies, and procedures – to help us meet objectives by doing things in a consistent, safe and efficient manner. Having best practices to fall back on saves the need to reinvent the wheel. Policies give guidance in questionable situations – without them, there would be chaos. But what happens when we follow procedures at the expense of something else? Perhaps, even something much more important.
Humankind has already witnessed the consequences of blind compliance with procedures and orders from above. In Nazi Germany, for example, they complied with strict protocols when selecting which prisoners went to forced labor camps, and which ones had to perish in gas chambers. Meticulously written laws governed the decisions made by the Nazis, and their fixation with upholding that order was facilitated by numerous law enforcement agencies. Our history is peppered with other tragic examples of holding policies above all – including the notorious Soviet purging of 1920-1930s. I am not advocating for violating rules or disregarding policies. In fact, I write those for my workplace all the time. What I am against is turning off our common sense in order to blindly stick with the written rule, and then use it to justify our lack of empathy.
The Fleeting Concepts of Right and Wrong:
Oliver Cromwell, a British politician of the 17th century was celebrated for his accomplishments in building democracy, advancing the role of Parliament, creating efficiency in the government, and giving Britain more fair laws. Yet the unspeakable cruelty brought under his command upon neighboring Ireland is compared by some historians to what Nazis did later to their ideological enemies. These atrocities, remembered by the Irish as Cromwell’s Curse, were nevertheless justified in England at the time as doing the right thing – instating the “right” faith in the otherwise “wrong”, Catholic, country.
Lynching became commonplace in the US after the abolishment of slavery. Executions of suspects with no proper trial were rationalized and justified countless times through parts of 19th and 20th centuries as a necessary practice with definite societal benefits. In the more recent past, being in the same-sex relationship was a punishable crime and still is in some parts of the world. Women were not allowed to apply for bank loans without a male co-signer as close as in our own backyard, and as recently as only three decades ago!
What do all of these examples have in common? The ever-changing concepts of what’s right and what’s wrong! The definition of what constitutes a crime or a just penalty shifts as political agendas replace one another and societal reforms take place. A policy that seemed fair yesterday might not hold its ground tomorrow. So maybe, in our zealous and, at times, mindless quest for instating today’s version of the “right” order, we are losing the sight of more lasting values.
State borders the way we know them were not necessarily established through peaceful agreements between countries. Violence was involved in most cases, and many of presently existing countries had at one point or another a colonial past – being the oppressor or the oppressed. In Middle Ages, philosophers justified cruelty by the necessity to establish and maintain societal order through enforcing dominance and submission (teachings of Thomas Aquinas, 13th century).
I don’t have justification for any form of violence but can agree that existence does determine consciousness. Europeans who sailed (not flew by first class) to the shores of the New World brought with them not a goodwill but deadly weapons and previously unknown diseases. In return, they faced their own share of violence from the locals. Making their way from the East coast to the West coast of the American continent the settlers moved at the rate of maybe 30 km a year encountering famine, harsh elements, bloodshed and other hardships along the way. Conditions of people’s existence shaped their threshold of what they found to be acceptable as means to an end.
But, as the societal progress has made our living increasingly more comfortable and our chances for survival much more favorable, how do we justify our lack of empathy? And how do we explain our need to resort to violent methods for achieving our goals today? If anything, the unprecedented heights of our scientific and technological advances, especially in the developed world, call for extra responsibility and for higher levels of consciousness on our end.
“A civilized person does not hurt unknowingly. He hurts only intentionally,” were the words of Anna Akhmatova, a Soviet poet of the totalitarian era. I couldn’t agree more. In this day and age, whether we allow people to risk their lives eluding our atrocities or make their children shed the tears of despair at our doorstep, we know exactly what we are doing. There is nothing unintentional about the harm we inflict. From that perspective, the current border crisis is not a stand-alone problem but a clear indicator of a much deeper issue.
So, the questions are: how do we loosen our fixation on our righteousness? How can we use the mistakes of the past, to see the bigger picture we are collectively missing so that we don’t have to repeat our wrongdoings over and over again? Is there anything we can do at our individual level to create the shift in mentality?