“The man the city sets up in authority must be obeyed in small things and just but also in their opposites,” declares the tyrannical king in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone. The plan to which he demands obedience calls for separating a brother and a sister across the city’s border—an act terrible in its cruelty but, he argues, necessary for security. The king wants to reestablish order in the city, and he is using the brother’s fate as a deterrent.
In the family separation described by Sophocles, the brother is not just exiled but dead; the king, Creon, has left his body to rot outside the city walls without a burial. The Trump administration has not engineered anything quite this cruel. But when it justifies pulling migrant parents away from their children at the U.S. border, it is speaking Creon’s language.
The New York Times reports that the administration began systematically separating parents from children at the border last month, reasoning that a policy this cruel would deter other would-be migrants from making the trip north. Almost 2,000 children were removed from their parents between April 18 and May 31. In the eight months prior, 700 children were separated.
“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period,” said White House aide Stephen Miller, who engineered the policy. “The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.” “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon went a step further: “The morality is the law,” he said when confronted with a photograph of a crying child.