Those who know me well know that I am a sensitive person — often moved to tears by a poem or some random act of human love. Still, even I surprised myself recently. While watching the testimony of four freshman congresswomen speaking on behalf of families separated at our southern border, I was moved beyond tears to sobs of shameful pain.
Most of us know the cast: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan; and Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts. Along with Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, these representatives form the core of a historic wave of women, especially women of color, elected to Congress. They have also been the target of routine and cheap Republican slanders since their election. President Donald Trump’s recent tweet requesting they “go back” to the countries they “came from” is just the worst in a series of attacks these women have endured over the course of this year.
These racist and sexist charges must rightly be confronted. However, focusing solely on the president’s comments threatens to divert our attention away from the powerful message that elicited such a response in the first place.
Inhumane living conditions
That message was straightforward: It is unnecessary and cruel to separate at the border families seeking asylum in the United States. Moreover, reports from detention centers like those the congresswomen visited in Clint, Texas, routinely tell of overcrowded facilities, as well as filthy and inhumane living conditions for the mothers and children separated from one another. In their testimony, each of these congresswomen reiterated the right for the cases of these families to be heard, but also that their basic human rights be upheld while in detention.
What made this testimony so powerful, however, is the reality that these members of Congress are all women, some of them mothers, deriving much of their moral authority from this identity. Indeed, it was Tlaib who deliberately framed the treatment of migrants at the border as not just an immigration crisis, but a crisis of morality. Not unsurprisingly, she made it known that a 7-year-old child who recently died of sepsis while in detention was the very same age as her own son. In that moment, she spoke for all mothers knowing deep motherly love. This is surely something only motherhood knows.
Nor could one ignore the prophetic voice of Pressley in her testimony, making clear that she was there to “shed light on injustice and lift the voices of the unheard.” Pressley let the committee know that while she is not fluent in Spanish, she and the women whose eyes she met behind plexiglass windows in Texas “speak the universal language of pain, of a mother’s love, of justice.” These, too, are surely things only motherhood knows.
I watched the testimony of these women in agonizing pain. As I sometimes am, I was moved to tears. But as the testimony continued, my tears turned to uncontrollable sobs and a head resting downwards in open palms: “How could we do this to children? How could we do this to mothers?”
‘Under an American flag’
The apotheosis of what should be widespread national shame came in Ocasio-Cortez’s quintessentially passionate remark that all of this was happening in detention centers “under an American flag.” The metaphor should floor us. We are all responsible for this moral travesty. Despite President Trump’s bombastic calls to “leave” the country if we don’t like it, true patriots in a democratic society dissent in the face of moral outrage. True patriots understand, as Ocasio-Cortez has, that this is all happening under an American flag. This is all happening on our watch.
In Greek tragedy, the term catharsis denotes the purgation of emotions following an unhappy and ruinous conflict. In these conflicts, we sometimes see unbearable tension over equally valid and overlapping commitments. Should Antigone obey the laws of the city or honor her brother’s memory in burial? Either choice results in a commitment gone unfulfilled. Yet a choice must be made. One commitment must be chosen at the expense of the other.
The crisis on the southern border does not have to be framed in such tragic terms. We don’t have to choose sovereignty or our basic moral character as a nation. I know this because in those sobs, though in a way both participant and viewer to dramatic action, I felt no catharsis. All I felt was shame. No child anywhere should be separated from his or her mother, regardless of the terrible realities of drug smuggling and human trafficking schemes. This is not a moment of irreconcilable and overlapping commitment. This is a moment where we must prioritize our common humanity.
To do that, there is simply no better way than by listening to and feeling the moral suasion of women and mothers. Rather than send these congresswomen “back to where they came from,” we should be welcoming more like them into our national politics. A renewal of any sense of political decency in this country may just depend on it.
Alexander Betley studied philosophy, politics, and economics at St. Olaf College and is currently a graduate student in International Relations at the University of Chicago.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)