Zero-Tolerance in Twelve Objects, Part 2: The Slaughter of the Innocents

On June 15, 2018, Twitter user Brandon Horan tweeted, “When you see innocent kids being put in tents sleeping on floor after getting ripped from their parents and your response is ‘Did they come here legally?’, then we don’t have a difference in political opinion. We have a difference in morality.”

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Policies and conditions at the border were put into place by officials who were elected by electoral college, and by officials who were appointed by other officials. Since the events have been happening in the political realm, does it follow that disagreements on the subject are merely political disagreements?

I have sometimes observed an interesting phenomenon in which thoughtful, intelligent people are adept at critiquing social structures from a variety of angles and ethical questions – as long as such societies are long ago, far away, or found in a fictional dystopia. Not only do people consider the official laws and systems themselves, but also the role of everyday people in allowing, resisting, building, and navigating such systems. People are capable of identifying differing levels of power and autonomy in “other” civilizations, and recognizing that every choice occurs in a web of interconnected individuals and institutions. In other words, people are capable of seeing the doings of other political systems as both political and moral.

Yet when presented with a situation in their own society like the zero-tolerance policy that has been unraveling at the U.S.-Mexico border for more than a year, some people’s analysis starts – and stops – with “Did they come here legally?”

For anyone with access to the Internet and a good public library, there is no shortage of information out there about the choice-that-is-no-choice faced by asylum seekers who “choose” to enter a country that has greater prospects of safety. In her poem “Home“, Warsan Shire writes, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. The circumstances that have been reported widely in the news (and in many other lines in “Home”) are more literal, and all the more harrowing in their realism, than the shark mouth metaphor.

For just a few examples:

PBS correspondent Amna Nawaz alluded to the poem “Home” in an interview last year on the situation at the border, and elaborated, “When your home holds for you what seems to be certain death, and the only option you have is then facing uncertainty and potentially crossing into a foreign land to see what happens, for the possibility of saving your life or your family’s life, people we have talked to say, that’s not really a choice at all.”

In the small, enchanting Tuscan hilltop town of Colle di Val d’Elsa, the Museo San Pietro’s collection includes The Slaughter of the Innocents, a painting by Giovan Battista Paggi (1554-1627). This painting depicts a horrific scene: grown men wielding swords, babies lying in blood and being thrown from a window. The particularity of swords may seem quaint or unfamiliar to modern viewers. The theme of brutality should not.

The parallels between the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s massacre and the plight of today’s refugees trying to escape unspeakable circumstances have been observed again and again and again. There are those who refute the comparison, pointing out differences in the details, but under the layers of similarity and distinction is an unavoidable truth: as long as there is violence, there will be people trying to escape violence.

And in this world, at this time in history, as Valeria Luiselli writes, “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Giovan Battista Paggi at the Museo San Pietro in Colle di Val d'Elsa, Italy

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Giovan Battista Paggi at the Museo San Pietro in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Italy

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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