Article By: Chris Edelson
A week ago, men & women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, 1 of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother & detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport. At least 1 other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling w/her 2 children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours w/out food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) & threatened w/deportation to Somalia.
At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained & handcuffed a 65-year-old woman traveling from Qatar to visit her son, who is a U.S. citizen & serviceman stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The woman was held for more than 33 hours, according to the New York Times & denied use of a wheelchair.
The men & women who work for the federal government completed these & other tasks & then returned to their families, where perhaps they had dinner & read stories to their children before bedtime.
When we worry & wonder about authoritarian regimes that inflict cruelty on civilians, we often imagine tyrannical despots unilaterally advancing their sinister agendas. But no would-be autocrat can act alone. As a practical matter, he needs subordinates willing to carry out orders. Of course, neither Donald Trump nor Steve Bannon personally detained any of the more than 100 people held at airports over the weekend pursuant to the administration’s executive order on immigration, visitation & travel to the United States. They relied on assistance.
The men & women who reportedly handcuffed small children & the elderly, separated a child from his mother & held others w/out food for 20 hours, are undoubtedly “ordinary” people. What I mean by that, is that these are, in normal circumstances, people who likely treat their neighbors & co-workers w/kindness & do not intentionally seek to harm others. That is chilling, as it is a reminder that authoritarians have no trouble finding the people they need to carry out their acts of cruelty. They do not need special monsters; they can issue orders to otherwise unexceptional people who will carry them out dutifully.
This should not be a surprise. The famous Milgram experiment & subsequent studies suggest that many people will obey instructions from an authority figure, even if it means harming another person. It is also perfectly understandable (which does not mean it is justifiable). How many of us would refuse to follow an instruction from a superior at work? It is natural to want to keep 1’s job, even if at the price of inflicting cruelty on another human being, even perhaps a child.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: What will we do? This is not a hypothetical question. Most of us will not face the stark choice employees at airports faced over the weekend. But we are all democratic citizens. Ultimately, our government can only act if we allow it to act. Under our Constitution, the people rule. Our elected officials, including the president, are accountable to us. We possess the power to reject actions we see as out of bounds. We are used to doing this in elections but democratic tools go further. Even once an election is over, we can exercise our 1st Amendment rights to contact elected officials, speak, write & protest.
It is far easier to do nothing, to trust that, somehow, America’s dangerous course will be set right. But this is a dangerous gamble, & in fact an abdication of our responsibility as Americans & indeed as human beings. If we do nothing, that is a choice. It means we accept a government that has demonstrated it is capable of inflicting cruelty on the innocent & defenseless. What will we do?