Are we civilized? Not really.
When families or single mothers are apprehended at the US border with Mexico, the Border Patrol agents will often take the children away from their elders and send them to a separate detention facility. These children do not have papers of their own. In the border crossing detention system they become anonymous and reuniting them with their parents becomes extremely difficult.
This story really stayed with me as an example of exceptional cruelty. Imagine managing to flee economic deprivation or continual violence in your home country, traversing several Central American countries and Mexico, succeeding to avoid police, and the military, and private parties preying on refugees. Finally you arrive at the United States borders where you hope to find work and security. But instead your children are taken away and cannot be found again. What a terrible fate.
The Border Patrol claims to follow this practice in order to protect the children. But that is so implausible an explanation; it has to be a blatant lie. In rare moments of frankness, officials of the Border Patrol have admitted that they are using this blatant brutality in the hope of discouraging others from Central America to try to enter the United States.
The story reminds us once again of the pervasiveness of cruelty in the world. Notorious examples are everywhere from the Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe to the oppression of Palestinians by Israelis, to the continued destruction of Syria’s towns and villages, leading mass deaths and deprivation of refugees from Syria, from Yemen, and from Somalia and many other places. Everywhere we see armies, civilian government bureaucracies use their power to injure and kill innocents. These cruelties are as old as humankind.
It is tempting to adopt anarchist beliefs that the state is by its very nature coercive and if we want to live in a world without constant brutalization of the weaker members of society, we need to build a society that has no state, no government, no bureaucracies, no standing armies that lord it over citizens.
But this grand project has serious shortcomings. We need bureaucracies to build roads, to install sewer pipes, water pipes, gas pipes. Someone needs to build and staff schools and many other public utilities. The initiative of individual persons does not suffice to provide the infrastructure for villages towns and cities. So it must be someone's job provided those infrastructures.
In addition someone needs to make rules and enforce them. We do not only need schools and teachers in the classrooms. We need to make sure that children go to school until their 16 (or older). And rules need to be enforced. Someone needs to make sure that food sold in stores is not adulterated or contaminated. Someone else needs to make sure that the gallon of milk you buy is indeed a full gallon and that the butcher does not have his thumb on the scale where he sells you a pound of meat. Someone needs to be available to make sure that the house you buy is safe and healthy.
Rules are needed; rules not enforced are useless. It is a waste of time to try to develop reasonable rules if no one is going to make sure that they will be observed. Making sure that the rulings are observed will involve coercion.
And here we face the terrible dilemma. A livable society appears to require rules and their enforcement through coercion. The institutions that administer coercion are the same institutions that act with terrible brutality such as the Border Patrol that tears families apart.
How can we control all the agencies established to enforce laws so that they will not be brutal and, for instance, murder unarmed young black men and women? The question does not seem to have an answer. The question does not get asked very often.
Our history documents barbarity in the treatment of one group by another. We regard ourselves as more civilized than many other nations or cultures but our behavior gives to lie to that claim. We are not merely as barbaric as any of our ancestors, but we are not even willing to consider how that barbarity may be reduced. We must not remain silent about the children taken from their parents.