America's Moral Gag Reflex
Every so often, something happens in the news that gets through to everyone. It reaches those who are not wired in to the constant stream of headlines, even those who consider themselves anemic to politics. It doesn't happen quite as much as you'd think, as it requires a very specific combination of shock, horror, longevity, and impact.
Of course 9/11 fit that description perfectly – it broke the façade of American invulnerability (the original term for 'safe space'), occurred in the world's most famous city, and was publicly dragged out in the form of the Iraq War. In the moment, there was a seventeen minute gap between the planes crashing into the towers, and another couple of hours until both towers collapsed. Columbine might have been a candidate if it happened in 2018 with live coverage; Parkland would have been one if we had some kind of video footage inside the school (it's probably the first time in weeks that you've thought about David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, or gun control in general). Some things are so horrifyingly normalized that we only recognize them years or decades after the fact – slavery, Japanese internment, and injustices against Native Americans among them. Most things under the Trump administration so far have been just words: shithole countries, on many sides, and so much more. Flint didn't quite hit the sweet spot – there are only so many pictures of brownish water you can see before it becomes repetitive. Changing your healthcare or your taxes might be horrible and impactful, but it's unlikely that the average American knows too much about it. They're political tragedies, but everything piece of policy is a political tragedy to someone.
Quick Tangent: Abortion is something that is perpetually hitting America's moral gag reflex to the point that it has become a bit numb, only to be re-energized by the imminent retirement of Supreme Court associate justice Anthony Kennedy (widely considered the court's swing vote on abortion). Most speculate that Roe v. Wade (and the subsequent, perhaps more important Planned Parenthood v. Casey) faces a serious threat from the new to-be-confirmed justice Brett Kavanaugh, as the court has shifted from an original 7-2 opinion to a 4-5 split. As Louis C.K. put it, "they think babies are being murdered!" People who are against abortion are against it because they believe it's killing a baby, which is something that would make anyone gag – although it bears mentioning that their belief is objectively disprovable (see: science). Besides, if you think a mother having an abortion is committing murder, wouldn't you also want that mother to go to jail, along with all the doctors that help her? You can't have it both ways. But this one has been drawn out over too long a time. Perhaps there will be a day in which we look back at a woman's right to choose in the same why we look at women's suffrage – "why didn't that happen sooner?!" But now, while we're living in it, it doesn't feel like it belongs.
Even an issue like Black Lives Matter – used here as an analog for anti-police brutality of minorities – never quite reached this level, because there was supposedly another side to it. You can get away with criticizing BLM for acts of public violence, or just saying you're generally pro-police (a position which is somehow designated as the anti-BLM one).
The issue of child separation, however, hit the sweet spot, that one area that makes you retch almost instantaneously. There was the accompanying (and vital) evidence – pictures of the detention facilities, audio of the pleading children, and the horror stories that came in almost daily. It's dragged on for quite some time – technically since March of last year when John Kelly (at that time Secretary of Homeland Security) mentioned formal consideration of the separation policy, but effectively since early April of this year when Jeff Sessions actually announced it. We're now in July, almost at the end of the thirty-day window that a federal judge gave for family reunification. In the interim, there have been reports of toddlers having to show up in court alone, and difficulties in figuring out which children belonged to which parents (because, you know, all brown people look the same or something). It'll surely drag on for another few months, during which even more stories will come out, possibly culminating in the firing of now-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. And the impact will drag on for many years more – fights over immigration policy, children who may never actually find their parents. Once children were involved it stopped being a political matter and turned human one, and it's very hard to be pro-child separation. Sure, by instituting the Muslim ban, we were effectively doing the same thing (separating families, some of whom were left to the horrible conditions in their home nations), but that was too far removed – it stopped at the border. Unfortunately, we never really physically saw those families.
This time, it's on our side of the turf. And this time, we see them.