Forget “extreme vetting,” how about “extreme cruelty”

Listened to this week’s This American Life and it was so sad to hear the stories of people who have already been very well vetted but were denied entry to America due to Trump’s ill-conceived and needlessly cruel executive order.   Imagine selling all your possessions after a multi-year process to prove yourself no threat to America, and being turned away at the airport and sent back.

Meanwhile, in Slate, Mark Joseph Stern summarizes some of the cruelties:

  • At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, CBP officers reportedly detained an elderly Sudanese woman suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, and severe kidney stones. They refused to provide her attorney or her family with any information on her health, status, or whereabouts. Her attorney later learned that CBP officers had demanded that his client withdraw her request for admission into the United States or be barred from entering the country for five years. She signed the document and was promptly deported. Her family never got to see her.
  • Also at DFW, CBP agents allegedly detained a lawful permanent resident along with her 11-month-old daughter, a U.S. citizen. They refused to let attorneys speak with the mother. When the child’s father came to the CBP office, agents refused to let him see his daughter.
  • CBP officers at Los Angeles International Airport allegedly deported an Iranian student 90 minutes after a federal judge explicitly barred the deportation of anyone targeted by Trump’s order. They ignored efforts by attorneys to halt the deportation.

Stern’s headline is “just following orders.”  Building on that idea, Chris Edelson’s Baltimore Sun column ties this to the Milgram experiments:

A week ago, men and 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, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.

At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.

At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old woman traveling from Qatar to visit her son, who is a U.S. citizen and serviceman stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The woman was held for more than 33 hours, according to the New York Times, and denied use of a wheelchair.

The men and women who reportedly handcuffed small children and the elderly, separated a child from his mother and held others without 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 and co-workers with kindness and 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 and subsequent studies suggest that many people will obey instructions from an authority figure, even if it means harming another person. [emphasis mine] 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 one’s job, even if at the price of inflicting cruelty on another human being, even perhaps a child.

Interesting and disturbing.  That said, I’m not sure all these federal law enforcement officials are decent people who go home and read bedtime stories.  I suspect that many of them are, but so many of these stories contain absolutely needless and extreme cruelty.  Handcuffing and separating a 5-year old?!  What orders are that?  I think, sadly, that a decent number of these border control officials have a mean streak/power complex and must have loved the opportunity, handed them by Trump, to exercise it in such a vicious way.  The Milgram experiments taught us that, yes, ordinary people are capable of pretty monstrous things, but I have a hard time believe many of these border officials believed their job was in jeopardy for leaving a 5-year old with his mom, allowing somebody a snack over 20 hours, etc.  I think there’s some pretty “bad dudes” working in border enforcement and that’s something we need to address.

Actually, this just reminded me that a good friend had his brother-in-law come from Chile about 11 years ago to help care for his newborn daughter when the parents returned to work.  The border agent simply refused to believe the brother-in-law (I imagine a fair amount of sexism at play here) and sent him on his way back to Chile with no legal recourse.  I fear, a good number of these agents enjoy being petty tyrants.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Forget “extreme vetting,” how about “extreme cruelty”

  1. Graham says:

    The cruelty of CBP officers and Trump’s cruel intent are disheartening. At a modest info session held by attorneys in Dearborn, MI (40,000+ Arab citizens), I got to a) witness the disproportionate burden of the order upon Arabs and Persians, and b) hear the undeserved concern and frustration that a very large number of locals had with recent border issues experienced by their close family members. A lot of empathy for a community tasked with proving themselves innocent after 9/11.

    Now, I’d like to see party affiliation with regards to Milgram experiment, marshmallow experiment, and need for cognition. I interact with so many intelligent people, but (as someone who has never touched a psych book), it seems like empathy, respect for authority, reaction to incentives, and inclination toward rigorous thought/research seem to predict so much about one’s political views.

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