I no longer know my country.
A place that tears mothers fleeing violence from their children, locks up children and mothers alike, stands by when they fall sick, shrugs when they die.
A place where top-ranking racist officials leverage hate-driven tragedy from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to El Paso, for their own venal political gain.
A place that penalizes the poorest and least connected, evicting them from their homes and decimating their health, disability, and nutrition benefits, led by public officials who somehow sleep at night while housing innocent foster children in juvenile prisons by day.
We are not alone, of course, in our culture-warping cruelty: even as Myanmar’s onetime luminary Aung San Suu Kyi lies to an international court about her country’s genocidal treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority, China is systematically detaining, torturing, and effectively enslaving more than a million of its own Muslim minority, the Uighurs, and India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party is brazenly instrumentalizing its own hegemonic vision by curtailing the rights and freedoms of its Kashmiri Muslims and denying citizenship to all Muslims seeking refuge in the country.
But America — my America, our America — was supposed to be different.
Yes, we were forged of brute racism, lethal and rapacious expansionism, and systematic othering that have spawned a ravaging inequality seemingly without end, recompense, or collective acknowledgement. And yes, our institutions seem almost engineered not just to protect, but actually to augment the spoils borne of this centuries-long oppression.
But the idea of America was and is different, promising “liberty and justice for all.” True, that notion of “all” has obviously required constant revisiting and expansion; but slowly, if lurchingly, that expansion has taken place, to the point where, increasingly, people from all backgrounds and self-definitions could lay claim to America, to feeling they belong here.
This is no longer the case: the prevailing winds now are full of bigotry and hate, violence, and cruelty. They have swept across our landscape, rendering it nearly unrecognizable, even to ourselves.
I was just out near the Mexican border. I went there, on the Arizona side, to hike with my family and to enjoy the wondrous organ pipe, saguro, and senita cacti, the majestic desert scape, creatures, and self-regulating ecosystem that have inspired so many American and Mexican park rangers, botanists, and wildlife experts to put their heads and data together across this artificial divide, to learn more about the life cycles and migratory patterns of the dizzying array of local species and the impacts of climate change on this delicately balanced desert terrain.
Like the organ pipes, polite but watchful U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and their feisty K-9s were in abundance in the park. There was no one stationed or working, though, along the patch of border where the Trump Wall is going up, a grotesque and hulking gash, already rusting, searing the landscape. There are still big, wide holes in “Wall:” a few yards of open space here, more again over there, and then, heading west toward a gentle springfed pond at Quitobaquito, there’s just a brown fence that could be mistaken for a farmer’s way of reining in his sheep.
On our way back, we came across a confab of camo-clad CBP police surrounding a small black-haired woman and her little boy. They had walked through one of the clearings between Wall implantations and were showing their papers and answering the patrolmen’s questions. The woman had a strikingly beautiful face, lit by her bright, shining eyes, and she wore a fresh, bright pink sweatshirt; her little boy, his face deep in his hoodie, clung to her sleeve. We passed them, roundly ignored by the eight Border Patrol agents, who clearly had their work cut out for them to determine what degree of threat this tiny woman and her tinier son posed to the national security of our great republic.
By now, the two may well be in immigrant detention, en route to being deported back to their country of origin, regardless of the woman’s reason for risking so much to make this move; or, in the less likely scenario where her papers checked out to the satisfaction of all assembled, the two might eventually be headed for Ohio or Connecticut, to join an aunt or big sister who sent for them.
Nations do need borders, and the United States sorely needs a sane, humane, comprehensive immigration policy, a holy grail that has stymied Congresses led by both parties for decades. But we cannot allow ourselves to countenance the kind of othering, ostracism, and numbing cruelty that has so indelibly stained our history, just as Trump’s monstrous hulk now stains our mountain majesties.
As we embrace 2020, our striving must be toward that “more perfect union,” not away from one. We must inoculate our infant decade by shouting out a fierce “NO” to the toxic cruelty corroding our national soul. As the late great Congressman Elijah Cummings fiercely admonished us in 2019, “We are better than that.”
Above all, we need to remember, as we face the challenges ahead, that the idea of America is a work in progress, one that requires constant vigilance, protection, and forward movement driven by vision, compassion, and heart.
We abandon this idea at our peril: with our 2020 vision, we cannot allow our brave democratic experiment, anchored in the aspiration of rights for all, to be crushed by a wall of hate. That would be a travesty — for those whose oppression and yearning first gave birth to this noble experiment, and those wronged by America who, with uncommonly patient faith in the experiment, should wait no longer for their rights to be fulfilled.