Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Terrified by cruel conditions at home, the brother and sister flee, winding their way, hungry and scared, through unknown woods. There, they encounter an old woman who lures them in with promises of safety. Instead, she locks one of them in a cage and turns the other into a servant, as she prepares to devour them both.
Written in 19th-century Germany, it should resonate eerily in today’s America. In place of Hansel and Gretel, we would, of course, have to focus on girls and boys by the hundreds fleeing cruelty and hunger in Central America, believing that they will find a better life in the United States, only to be thrown into cages by forces far more powerful and agents much crueler than that wicked old woman. In the story, there are no politics; there is only good and bad, right and wrong.
Rather than register the suffering involved in the captivity and punishment of those children, the administration has chosen a full-bore defense of its policies and so has taken a giant step in a larger mission: redefining (or more precisely trying to abolish) the very idea of human rights as a part of the country’s identity.
The United States has long had migrants pushing at its southern border, often in larger numbers than at present. In fact, since the 1980s, the numbers crossing that border exceeded 1 million in 19 different years. What’s new with the current border crossings is the number of children among the migrants. According to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan’s sobering testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the presence of children has risen 72 percent in recent years.
It’s hard not to assume that at least some of the treatment is intentional. Why else turn away doctors offering help or refuse supplies of donated aid sent by worried citizens?
In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered some insights into the mindset of such an administration when it comes to the country’s longstanding embrace of the very idea of human rights. He announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department. Its purpose, he claimed, was to rethink the spread of human rights protections as a part of American foreign policy. The very idea of rights, Pompeo insisted, had spun out of control. “Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings,” he said, wagging his finger at 70 years of history. “‘Rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.”
No wonder it’s easy to feel we’ve entered a dismal fairy tale from an age of ogres and witches, where the forces of evil have taken charge. Attacking the most vulnerable among us leaves little room for doubt. This administration is determined to undo the country’s commitment to human rights and so change its identity in a way that should concern us all.