Some years ago, I met via fellowship a group of journalists from countries where the fates of citizens hinge on choices out of Washington: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. The idea was to get to know one another and our worlds, and so one afternoon we heard from an expert on federalism. “Americans,” he told us, looking mostly at the foreigners, “don’t care about foreign policy. They care about domestic policy.” This idea seemed to jolt my peers, one of whom, from Kabul, asked me to explain. I found myself talking about the link between distance and imagination—how when you are far from something, a person, place, feeling, drone in the sky, bloodied body or crying child—you can feel okay about failing to do the basic work of imagining the reality of the people affected.
Imaginative power also explains the intensity of Americans’ reaction to what is happening on the border of their country right now. The thousand-plus children cut from the touch and presence of their parents since May of this year join a line of kids changed by American policy, under so many presidents. Only this tragedy has gears shifting: an op-ed by former First Lady Laura Bush and petitions from Christian leaders, mental-health experts, and Republican operatives. The current president may excel at getting away with murder, but even he seems stumped at how to distract us from the goings-on at the border (his freshly signed executive order, vague as it is, feels more a gesture toward distraction than a solution).
“I thought about that myself,” said the scholar Douglas Brinkley, a few days ago, when I reached him by phone. I’d put to him a thought that the border crisis seems poised to leave a mark out of a long line of stains that haven’t quite set, just as George W. Bush’s inability to feel the toll of Hurricane Katrina destabilized an administration that spent much of its time up until then ending or arguing for the end of many individual lives.
As a historian at Rice University, Brinkley focuses on the legacies of U.S. presidents. His analysis of Bush forwarded the Katrina theory—that Bush’s handling of the natural disaster revealed his ineptitude to the American people in a visceral way the unprovoked wiping of Iraq didn’t, a theory borne out by a dip in poll numbers. “Just as Katrina was more than a hurricane, its impact was more than physical destruction. It eroded citizens’ trust in their government. It exacerbated divisions in our society and politics. And it cast a cloud over my second term,” Bush himself would later write in his memoir, Decision Points. Maybe more lasting than the statistical losses was the intangible one—of his “decider” image—a mythos created the moment he started talking on screen after 9/11, that arguably buoyed him even as the ill-advised war unfurled.
Katrina’s timeline could script a split-screen parody: on one side, a disaster movie sequence: mounting panic as the city’s levees fill and then collapse, killing hundreds, stranding more, predictions for this fallout sent to no end to the president; on the other, scenes of Bush at play: golfing, checking into his vacation home, congratulating Brownie, being Bush. It wasn’t Bush that changed, to remix a breakup line, but the country he was meant to care for that did, its iconic Gulf state flooding as he failed to register and made clear his flaws.
“It’s all about imagery,” as Brinkley put it to me, and the images of the last few days from the border are hard to ignore. They lodge in the mind, bait the imagination, just as the flooding of an iconic American city does. Or, to quote Kellyanne Conway (one assumes she wasn’t intending to sound focused only on optics): “Nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms.” Or, to quote the president himself: “The images are bad for us,” Trump said to a group of Republicans. Such images dominate every feed I scroll, one more often than the rest: a 3-year-old girl wailing into the night as border agents pin her mother against a car, taken from the view of a child’s, only her mother’s legs visible. The award-winning photographer who took the picture has since given interviews articulating what made the shot harder to move on from than any he’s taken in a long career at the border: knowledge and emotion. John Moore knew more than his subjects—as do we—knew then that they would be separated, based on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero tolerance” policy, word of which couldn’t be expected to have reached families making the long crossings over the border, such as the girl and her mom from Honduras. Then, as a person—once a child, now a parent—the photographer could not help but feel.
“We were all children,” the psychoanalyst Stephen Soldz said in a radio segment Monday, on why the border crisis has stirred political action among mental-health experts “like nothing I’ve seen in many years.” He referenced a scene so classic in American iconography, one wonders if we feel it happened to us whether or not it did: “When you’re lost in a store and can’t find your parents.”
Of the list of PR debacles of the Trump era (the travel ban, the Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels) nothing has rallied bipartisan disgust with the speed and range of this latest crisis. Brinkley points to differences in our ability to imagine the pain caused by Hurricane Maria to elucidate the change now, why the separations at the border seem to hit us harder. Set away from our imaginative field, in Puerto Rico, its winds swept the region more or less invisibly to mainland Americans; a lack of cameras on the ground conspired with an interest from island leaders to maintain upbeat outgoing imagery to serve the main industry of tourism. Unaware of “any political gain” in helping Puerto Rico, by Brinkley’s read, Trump focused his limited stores of performative empathy on Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in time to overlap relief efforts. A comparison of federal statistics on the response to both hurricanes tells the story of a favorite and an unloved child: More than 20 times the federal assistance money went to Harvey versus Maria, more helicopters dropped supplies, and sooner; more food and water arrived for sustenance; and then there was Trump himself, dismissing Puerto Rican pleas for help as whininess, as he all but clapped his face in awe at the scale of destruction possible by nature when tweeting about Harvey.
Lately, the term “soul murder” has resurfaced in talking about Trump. Its last big moment was 1999, when the psychiatrist Leonard Shengold fished it from an 1896 play written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen sought to describe how we each carry the power to kill each other’s capacity for love, joy. Shengold applied this idea to explain the effects of child abuse, with a book, titled, in part, Soul Murder, linking the “abuse and neglect of children by adults” to an altered life for the child—an echo of today’s predictions of the lifelong scars that will be borne by children apprehended at the U.S. border. Speaking to Brinkley, I thought of two other literary terms: hubris and hamartia, Greek words for the play between egoism and error, of thinking always of the propping up of oneself to a degree you miss that such a tower is so precarious you will have to fall.
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