COMMENTARY: The American landscape and 'tormenting of the children'


By Samuel Damren

This commentary is about the government’s now abandoned “zero tolerance” policy for immigrant families seeking asylum and the forced separation of immigrant children from their parents. The harms caused by the policy have yet to be fully assessed, but the question addressed here is whether these practices are at risk of becoming, or ever were, an accepted part of the American landscape.

How cruel practices can evolve to become accepted societal norms is not a new phenomenon. It has occurred in the past, repeatedly. A historical perspective, divorced from current events in America, better dramatizes the shock value of just what can be normalized.

John Amos Comenius was a Czechoslovakian educator. He rose to fame in 1631 with the publication of a textbook for young students titled, “The Gates of Language Unlocked.” Over time, it became a “standard work” advancing less rigid teaching techniques than the traditional harsh and rote methods then prevalent in Europe. The book was reprinted in 12 European languages as well as Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Mongolian. Comenius went on to author 92 works dealing with educational reform. One of those books was “Orbis Pictus” or “Visible World.”

Published in 1657, “Orbis Pictus” is regarded as the “first children’s picture book.” The English translation is 194 pages. It has 150 illustrations of scenes, objects and people with corresponding explanations (“Nomenclature”) for the reader. Comenius believed that books constructed in this fashion would appeal to the young and entice them to learn about the world through books. In his preface, Comenius wrote “See here then a new help for schools. A Picture and Nomenclature of all the chief things in the world, and of men’s actions in their way of living.”

The first illustration is of an elder and a boy on a bucolic sunlit plain with trees, buildings and homes in the background. It is entitled “Invitation” and features the following discourse between “the Master” and “the Boy.” Master: “Come Boy, learn to be wise ... to understand rightly, to do rightly and to speak out rightly all that is necessary.” Boy: “How?” Master: “I will guide thee thorow all.”

The Master introduces the Boy to “The World” through a series of delightful pictures and accompanying texts. The reader is shown the Air, Water, Clouds and the Fruits of the Earth. The Master then guides the Boy through living things beginning with plants, the Fruits of Trees and Flowers before next advancing to Living Creatures, First, the Singing-Birds (“The Nightingal singeth the sweetlyest of all”) concluding with Man, the activities of Man (Bread baking, the Carpenter, Fishing, Fowling, Husbandry, Swimming) and the products of Man (the Home, Musical Instruments, a Stage-play).

At “The Close” of “Orbis Pictus,” the Master and Boy bid one another farewell with the Master saying to the Boy, “Go on now and read other good Books diligently, and thou shalt become learned, wise and godly.” But preceding this Close and the playful discourse throughout the book—and treated no differently than any other subject or topic—is a picture and accompanying explanatory text of “The Tormenting of Malefactors.” To the modern observer, this passage arrives like an asteroid from another world crashing into the otherwise pastural landscape of 17th century Europe.

“Orbis Pictus” is a Google Book so you can view the iniquitous picture for yourself, but I will quote part of the text which accompanies it.

Malefactors are brought from the Prison (where they are wont to be tortured) by Serjeants or dragg’d with a Horse to place of Execution. Thieves are hanged by the Hangman on a Gallows. Whoremasters are beheaded. Murtherers and Robbers are either laid upon a Wheel, having their Legs broken, or fastened upon a Stake, Witches are burnt in a Great Fire. Some before they are executed have their Tongues cut out, or have their Hand, cut off upon a Block, or are burnt with Pincers ... Traytors are pull’d in pieces with four Horses.

And then, as if none of this is anything but a part of normal landscape, the next picture and text in “Orbis Pictus” concerns the topic of “Merchandizing” (“Wares brought from other places are either exchanged in an Exchange or exposed to sale in Warehouses ...”).

From May 5, 2018 until June 20, 2018, American immigration officials implemented a policy of family separation for parents and children at the southern border who sought asylum after crossing into the United States without having been formally admitted into the country following inspection by immigration officers.
Under this so-called “zero tolerance” policy, federal authorities charged asylum-seeking parents with misdemeanor illegal entry under 8 U.S.C. § 1325 – notwithstanding the fact that federal law makes no distinction as to where a noncitizen can apply for asylum. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a)(1) provides “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival ...), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum ...” The government then used the unlawfully constructed pending criminal case as a predicate to forcibly separate children from their now-jailed parents. After it was exposed by the press, the practice ended as a result of public and judicial outrage, but not before thousands of family separations occurred.

The government was subsequently ordered to re-unite the families. To date, news outlets and investigators report that 666 young children have yet to be re-united with their parents. Lawyers believe the number may be even higher. There can be no assurance that the true number of victims will ever be known.
Stephen Miller was the architect of this Trump Administration policy. He has been described as a “monster” in the press and apparently revels in the appellation. Human rights and religious organizations across the globe have condemned the policy of family separation. Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have repeatedly demanded that the children and parents be reunited, but the Trump Administration claims that despite their “best efforts” to do so, it is impossible.

We’ll soon see if the “best efforts” of the incoming Biden Administration meet with more success and if the damage can ever be repaired.

The question first posed in this commentary is whether this horror show, Stephen Miller’s “Tormenting of the Children,” was at risk of becoming, or ever was, an accepted part of the American societal landscape. Americans would like to think not. Many might argue that the practice was short-lived, albeit horrific for the families. They might tell themselves that Stephen Miller was merely a “rogue” miscreant in a one term administration and that while the results were surely “tragic” for the victims and so our “hearts go out to them,” they cannot accept the view that this type of government action ever was, or could be truly at risk of becoming, normalized.

This resistant perspective contains words often repeated in the context of other racist tragedies in the American past and present. But notwithstanding this proffered explanation, questions linger. Why did this happen? How was it even conceived?

If you are not a white American, you may see Stephen Miller’s family separation policy through a different lens. You would have good reason for that perspective.

The technique of family separation did not originate with him. The cruel practice of forcibly separating children from parents was a slaver’s practice that was brutally implemented for close to two hundred fifty years to punish and subjugate enslaved Africans and uphold a system of explicit white supremacy. Stephen Miller’s “Tormenting of the Children” is simply a provocative recent iteration.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this commentary is that for non-whites, the policy of forced family separation was a societal norm in some parts of American for a very long time; and, from Stephen Miller’s perspective, the cruelty of the zero-tolerance policy is an accepted tool or “Torment” upholding longstanding racist norms. We are cautioned that similar racist policies from America’s ever-present past will continue to find root in the 21st century as long as white supremacists continue to find paths to power.
Samuel Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and author of “What Justice Looks Like.”