Ahsan: What We Owe Each Other
Focusing on the politics of Trump’s rhetoric ignores human rights concerns.
While it would be impossible to pay attention to every jumbled phrase that streams out of the President’s mouth, the impulse to ignore him is tempered by the sobering reality that his offhand statements often become the policy direction of the United States government. This seems to be the case with a comment he made recently in which he referred to MS-13 gang members as “animals,” a statement that the White House doubled down on Monday with a Breitbart-style press release entitled “What you need to know about the violent animals of MS-13.” Trump’s tendency to vilify all undocumented people and conflate immigrant communities with violent criminals is well-documented, and to parse his general incoherence in order to pretend he or his administration care to make any real distinction is intellectual dishonesty at its boldest. One only needs to ask what to make of the families of these so-called “animals” or the communities they live in to recognize the real intent of this rhetoric.
Refusing to further interrogate these attitudes demands people treat each individual development as an isolated incident rather than as inextricably based in a troubled historical tradition. It should be criminal negligence, for example, to ignore the history of American law enforcement’s abuse of the concept of gang affiliation. Just last year, a federal court found that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had attempted to deport a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient with no criminal record on the basis of his non-existent “gang affiliation” with doctored evidence. As many legal advocacy groups have pointed out, law enforcement databases of suspected gang members are often racist and arbitrary, with no real oversight or transparency.
The concern felt at the acceptance and subsequent defense of these statements cannot, however, be reserved solely for the innocent. Suppose the president’s remarks could be taken in the best faith possible, that he had no history of violent rhetoric aimed at the marginalized. If such well-intentioned assumptions could be made, it would not change at all the fact that referring to criminals as subhuman is a worrying development for a nation that claims to be concerned with human rights.
As is so often the case, much of the discourse around this development is utterly incapable of looking beyond this particular moment at the broader implications it brings with it. The general attitude can be summed up succinctly by Lachlan Markay, a reporter for The Daily Beast who tweeted rather glibly that asserting the continued humanity of gangbangers was “not the hill to die on” for liberals expressing outrage. This is a curious notion, since it seems to posit outright not only that humanity is something to be conferred on the deserving rather than something that is innate and inalienable, but also that it should only be doled out when doing so is a politically savvy move.
It does not take careful study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to realize that this is not how civil rights work. While it can be tempting to reassure oneself that individuals who put forth horrifying transgressions lack humanity, doing so is willfully ignorant of the terrible things all people are capable of because of humans’ intrinsically flawed nature. This is not to say that there is no moral distance between any given two people, of course, but rather to point out the dangers of assuming that it takes a monster to commit monstrous acts. There are countless examples of horrific deeds done by supposedly decent people, for supposedly justified causes, that prove otherwise.
Regardless of guilt or criminal status, humanity cannot be meted out or taken away. (The religiously inclined should recognize that this particular decision is the responsibility of a figure of considerably higher authority.) Human rights, therefore, are likewise nonnegotiable. This, of course, is what separates them from privileges. The rights of criminals — not only the accused, but the convicted and the guilty — may differ from those of one’s own friends and neighbors, but they are equally sacrosanct; the reality no amount of rhetorical distancing can evade is that their rights are the foundation of those shared by every member of society.
All successes and failures in organizing society have been concerned with a central issue: the question of what people owe to one another. The fact of humans’ mutual indebtedness is as inescapable as the turning of the Earth. People are all bound together insolubly, no matter the revulsion some inspire in the rest, by the terrifying truth that everyone has in common one life during which to live and struggle and, one day, die. The recognition of not being alone in the terror of this realization is what unites people, and what forms the basis of human rights.
It is easy to think about the extent of people’s obligation to one another if one only considers one’s friends and neighbors, the members of polite society who have agreed to adhere to the rules, the people who are easy to look at. This, however, leaves the central question unanswered. When all social niceties have been stripped away and all agreements to behave in a civilized manner have been transgressed against, all that remains are people who hold nothing in common but the inextinguishable link of their shared humanity. This is when the question is really confronted for the difficult one that it is. What could one owe criminals and murderers? The answer lies in the fact that the nature of the obligation is not individual, but societal, and criminals can no more extricate themselves from humanity through violence than the most blameless saint can through innocence. Whatever people owe the transgressor and the stranger is the bedrock on which everyone’s rights rest, safe in the knowledge that there is an inviolable, inherent dignity in each living soul. When that shared humanity is denied, whatever the intention, the bottom falls out. No matter what is supposedly being defended, when cruelty is used to justify cruelty, the way gang violence has been used to justify tearing families apart and locking people in detention centers with endemic cultures of sexual abuse, nothing worth defending remains intact. People’s humanity, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said, is “inextricably bound up” in each other’s. It would be wise to remember that the same is true for people’s inhumanity. After all, if they are only animals, why would the rest of society be anything else?