August 8, 2022 Editor

Thoughts On: “We need to take away children.”

The secret history of the U.S. government’s family-separation policy

An investigation by

Caitlin Dickerson

August 7, 2022

image above: These illustrations were created by The Atlantic using direct quotes from parents who were separated from their children. Interviews were conducted by the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a legal-advocacy organization that has helped separated families build and file lawsuits against the U.S. government. In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told The Atlantic, “We take all allegations seriously, provide multiple avenues to report allegations of misconduct, and investigate all formal complaints.” (Photo-illustrations by Oliver Munday)

WN: Reading this made me think of Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn‘s visceral “If I had a Rocket Launcher . . .

To have this story highlighted below, so brilliantly laid out in detail, stirs up fairly overwhelming emotions . . .

This policy (still denied by the DOJ to this day) and enactment are akin to aspects of the Holocaust, as in:

But DOJ has been defending Zero Tolerance—and the individuals responsible for it—in court, insisting in a recent hearing that a family-separation policy “never really existed. What existed was the Zero Tolerance policy which started in April of 2018 … We have testimony from the CBP and ICE witnesses and from Hamilton, who was at DHS at the time, that these separation policies, as plaintiffs put it, never existed, and they were never enacted.”

In Reflections On: Opinion Doug Mastriano’s unhinged ‘Nazi’ claim signals deeper danger ahead, June 21, 2022, in one segment about a review of the recent publication, The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich, under the title: The Enduring Appeal of Moral Monsters, b:

In a foreword to the book, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt essentially throws up his hands before the mystery of Heydrich’s evolution from a musically gifted, intelligent and lonely little boy into a monstrous, hyper-rational technocrat with a photographic memory and unmatched organizational abilities: “One searches in vain for a rational explanation of Heydrich’s descent into evil,” he writes. “No single biographical fragment satisfies.”

Then again, I would suggest that even the most psychologically astute biography is not equipped to explain the guiltless machinations of ruthless despots: It can never catch the elusive, complex matrix of character and circumstance that creates a Heydrich (or a Putin, for that matter).

Such creatures seem to exist in a space apart, infused by a cruelty that is inconvertible and feeds on itself without being entirely traceable to early experiences, painful or humiliating though they may be. In the end, the reader is left gazing at something that is ultimately inscrutable.

My commentary, in part, follows:

Such creatures seem to exist in a space apart. . .,” or . . . in every administration upholding American Empire (and every imperial order preceding of which there are legion during centuries of Western colonial domination, for instance)–which is every American administration, in the military, in law enforcement, millennia ago, in short     . . . in every human heart!

The great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uttered his jeremiads 1 of no less irrefutable truth today, one of which was (17:9):

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

The “horrorary” list of American mass slaughter imagined and executed could of course continue indefinitely, but I shall choose a few willy-nilly:

  • the genocide against American Indians;
  • the cultural genocide against Blacks from before America was founded to this day;
  • Curtis LeMay, the most decorated American serviceman at the time he received those honours, responsible for mass slaughter of the Japanese, including ruthless carpet bombing all over Japan, culminating in two atomic bombs developed and dropped not once but on two separate cities, fully aware that mass civilian casualties would be/were the outcome;
  • the massive nuclear arms held by the U.S., capable of destroying all life on the planet (currently undergoing upgrade into the trillions of dollars);
  • the ubiquitous arms sales designed to enable slaughter worldwide;
  • John W. Dower in The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, wrote of General (George) Lee Butler, a “nuclear warrior” in the Cold War years, who eventually in an overt mea culpa became a passionate proponent for outright nuclear abolition, thus:

    In retrospect, he decried the “wantonness,” “savagery,” “reckless proliferation,” “treacherous axioms,” and voracious “appetite” of deterrence — for which he himself had helped create many systems and technologies, including “war plans with over 12,000 targets.”… Elegant theories of deterrence,” he exclaimed in one speech, “wilt in the crucible of impending nuclear war.” In later recollection of the folly of deterrence, Butler pointed out that at its peak the United States “had 36,000 weapons in our active inventory,” including nuclear landmines and sea mines and “warheads on artillery shells that could be launched from jeeps.” He concluded that mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in greatest proportion. (pp. 36 and 37).

In Alfred W. McCoy‘s The Pentagon’s New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion, September 10, 2017, we read:

And what is all this technology being prepared for? In study after study, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and related think tanks have been unanimous in identifying the main threat to future U.S. global hegemony as a rival power with an expanding economy, a strengthening military, and global ambitions: China, the home of those denizens of the Gobi Desert who would, in that old Buck Rogers fable, destroy Washington four centuries from now. Given that America’s economic preeminence is fading fast, breakthroughs in “information warfare” might indeed prove Washington’s best bet for extending its global hegemony further into this century — but don’t count on it, given the history of techno-weaponry in past wars.

Washington’s dogged reliance on and faith in military technology to maintain its hegemony will certainly guarantee endless combat operations with uncertain outcomes in the forever war against terrorists along the ragged edge of Asia and Africa and incessant future low-level aggression in space and cyberspace. Someday, it may even lead to armed conflict with rivals China and Russia.

Whether the Pentagon’s robotic weapon systems will offer the U.S. an extended lease on global hegemony or prove a fantasy plucked from the frames of a Buck Rogers comic book, only the future can tell. Whether, in that moment to come, America will play the role of the indomitable Buck Rogers or the Martians he eventually defeated is another question worth asking.  One thing is likely, however: that future is coming far more quickly and possibly far more painfully than any of us might imagine.

And I’ve only scratched the surface! This website has liberally sprinkled throughout Western horror stories . . .

In The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, author David Livingstone Smith . . . takes the reader on a journey through evolution, history, anthropology, and psychology, showing how and why the human mind has a dual nature: on the one hand, we are ferocious, dangerous animals who regularly commit terrible atrocities against our own kind, on the other, we have a deep aversion to killing, a horror of taking human life.

For writers such as the author, one must say: Et tu, Ms. Merkin. . .

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in No Future Without Forgiveness:

The former apartheid cabinet member Leon Wessels was closer to the mark when he said that they had not wanted to know, for there were those who tried to alert them (p. 269).

Et tu, Ms. Merkin. . . Et tu, Americans in general . . . Et tu, (potentially) all humanity . . .

And yet somehow, Ms. Merkin can seemingly write with a straight face that such “moral monsters” “exist in a space apart.” As if such people are rarely, if ever? (at least few and far between), found in the enlightened liberal West . . .

That notion is tragically, untrammeled bullshit . . .

I continue with much more in The Enduring Appeal of Moral Monsters, b . . . In short, wilful naïveté or not, the author exhibits an appalling ignorance of American moral monsters, past, present, and without doubt, future.

Please see further on this: Empire, Racism and Genocide: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy. Of it, we read:

In its entire history, there has been very little time when the United States has been at peace. As it wages its many wars and ‘interventions’, the stated goal is always something few people could argue with: fostering democracy when a struggling people are resisting tyranny, removing threats to U.S. security, or punishing a cruel dictator for unspeakable misdeeds. Yet on closer scrutiny, these reasons are seldom valid.

They simply hide the true purposes of U.S. military involvement, which are power and wealth. Starting with the barbarous destruction of Native American culture in order to gain farmlands, right through to the Iraqi invasion for oil, money and power have always motivated U.S. foreign policy decisions. Dictators with appalling records of human rights violations are upheld by the U.S. if they agree to whatever economic or strategic demands the U.S. makes. Conversely, democratically elected leaders are overthrown if they don’t. Empire, Racism & Genocide: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy looks at U.S. history from shortly before the American Revolution, up to the present time, and details the U.S. government’s true motivations for its ongoing, deadly war machine.

“Having already published the most insightful and well-researched study we have of U.S. military desertion, and a powerful novel dramatizing the tragedy of participation in a U.S. war, Robert Fantina now brings us a comprehensive survey of the history of U.S. war-making. This new book is as clear-eyed and unflinching as Fantina’s others. It belongs in our classrooms and perhaps our doctors’ offices, where it might be prescribed as a cure for television viewing.” – David Swanson, best-selling author of War Is A Lie and other books

They simply hide the true purposes of U.S. military involvement, which are power and wealth.

“We were sent to Iraq in 2003 and one of the tasks my unit had to search for the chem/bio weapons we were told were there. Everywhere we went, we found nothing. Sure, there were lots of standard munitions in warehouses and other places. But they were not my concern. I wasn’t worried about them. Then we were tasked to guard oil wells along the route we were taking as we made our way north. We harassed a lot people who were doing nothing to us. “Empire, Racism & Genocide: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy tells the true story of why the U.S. has been at war almost constantly from its inception to the present time.

Lies I was told about the reasons for invading Iraq were only revisions of lies that had been told to soldiers and the citizenry from the War of 1812, through Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and every other imperial misadventure the United States started. Additionally, the dehumanizing aspects of the U.S. military, from the time a soldier enters basic training to the time they leave service, are detailed.2 The book is an important addition to any realistic study of U.S. foreign policy.” – Kevin Benderman, 10-year veteran, war resister, peace activist

In The Complexity of Evil: Perpetration and Genocide, by Timothy Williams3, one reads:

The title of this book, The Complexity of Evil, references Hannah Arendt’s ([1963] 1994) iconic phrase of “the banality of evil,” which she coined in her seminal book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt broke with the interpretation of Holocaust perpetrators being psychopaths, ideological fanatics, or in other ways aberrant. Instead, she suggested that Adolf Eichmann was “terribly and terrifyingly normal” (276) and that in the context Eichmann was situated in, the evil acts he committed did not require evil motivation, his motivations were quite banal, and indeed he was just “thoughtless” regarding the moral consequences of his acts (p. 3, emphasis added).

This to us is deeply disturbing, if true. For it leaves no one out, as in the Jeremiah quote above. Saint Paul cites the prophet Isaiah in Romans 3, thus:

10As it is written:

“There is no one righteous,

not even one.

The author of the book above writes in the Introduction (p. 3):

Heinrich Popitz once wrote that “a human never has to, but can always act violently, he never has to, but can always kill—individually or collectively—together or with division of labor—in all situations … in different moods … for all imaginable ends—anyone.” (Phänomene der Macht. Autorität—Herrschaft—Gewalt—Technik. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.; p. 76, 1986.)

And while his study as does Arendt’s references genocide, it applies to all group and individual evil acts. To everyone! No exceptions. Hence, what we read highlighted below.


But in the summer of 2017, Quintana encountered a curious case. A 3-year-old Guatemalan boy with a toothy smile and bowl-cut black hair sat down at her desk. He was far too little to have made the journey on his own. He had no phone numbers with him, and when she asked where he was headed or whom he’d been with, the boy stared back blankly. Quintana scoured his file for more information but found nothing. She asked for help from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, who came back several days later with something unusual: information indicating that the boy’s father was in federal custody.

Across her organization—Bethany Christian Services, one of several companies contracted by the American government to care for newly arrived immigrant children—Quintana’s colleagues were having similar experiences. Jennifer Leon, a teacher at Bethany, was at the office one day when the private company that transports children from the border delivered a baby girl “like an Amazon package.” The baby was wearing a dirty diaper; her face was crusted with mucus. “They gave the baby to the case manager with a diaper bag, we signed, that was it,” Leon recalled. (Leon rushed the baby to the hospital for an evaluation.)

During the year and a half in which the U.S. government separated thousands of children from their parents, the Trump administration’s explanations for what was happening were deeply confusing, and on many occasions—it was clear even then—patently untrue. I’m one of the many reporters who covered this story in real time. Despite the flurry of work that we produced to fill the void of information, we knew that the full truth about how our government had reached this point still eluded us.

Trump-administration officials insisted for a whole year that family separations weren’t happening. Finally, in the spring of 2018, they announced the implementation of a separation policy with great fanfare—as if one had not already been under way for months. Then they declared that separating families was not the goal of the policy, but an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally with their children. Yet a mountain of evidence shows that this is explicitly false: Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer.

Over the past year and a half, I have conducted more than 150 interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of internal government documents, some of which were turned over to me only after a multiyear lawsuit. These records show that as officials were developing the policy that would ultimately tear thousands of families apart, they minimized its implications so as to obscure what they were doing. Many of these officials now insist that there had been no way to foresee all that would go wrong. But this is not true. The policy’s worst outcomes were all anticipated, and repeated internal and external warnings were ignored. Indeed, the records show that almost no logistical planning took place before the policy was initiated.

It’s been said of other Trump-era projects that the administration’s incompetence mitigated its malevolence; here, the opposite happened. A flagrant failure to prepare meant that courts, detention centers, and children’s shelters became dangerously overwhelmed; that parents and children were lost to each other, sometimes many states apart; that four years later, some families are still separated—and that even many of those who have been reunited have suffered irreparable harm.

It is easy to pin culpability for family separations on the anti-immigration officials for which the Trump administration is known. But these separations were also endorsed and enabled by dozens of members of the government’s middle and upper management: Cabinet secretaries, commissioners, chiefs, and deputies who, for various reasons, didn’t voice concern even when they should have seen catastrophe looming; who trusted “the system” to stop the worst from happening; who reasoned that it would not be strategic to speak up in an administration where being labeled a RINO or a “squish”—nicknames for those deemed insufficiently conservative—could end their career; who assumed that someone else, in some other department, must be on top of the problem; who were so many layers of abstraction away from the reality of screaming children being pulled out of their parent’s arms that they could hide from the human consequences of what they were doing.

Congress, too, deserves blame, because it failed for decades to fill a legislative vacuum that anti-immigration officials moved to exploit. For too long, an overworked and underequipped border-police force has been left to determine crucial social, economic, and humanitarian policy. It should be no surprise that this police force reached for the most ready tool at its disposal: harsher punishments.

What happened in the months that led up to the implementation of Zero Tolerance—the Trump administration’s initiative that separated thousands of families—should be studied by future generations of organizational psychologists and moral philosophers. It raises questions that have resonance far beyond this one policy: What happens when personal ambition and moral qualm clash in the gray anonymity of a bureaucracy? When rationalizations become denial or outright delusion? When one’s understanding of the line between right and wrong gets overridden by a boss’s screaming insistence?

In reporting this story, I talked with scores of Trump-administration officials whose work was in some way connected to the policy. Very few were willing to speak on the record, for fear that it would affect their employment prospects. A number of them told me they were particularly nervous because they had children to think about and college tuitions to pay. During interviews, they asked to call me back so that they could run and pick their children up from school; they sat their children down in front of homework or toys so that we could speak privately in their homes. “Can you hold on? My daughter is about to get in her car to leave and I need to kiss her goodbye,” one government official said as she was in the middle of describing a spreadsheet of hundreds of complaints from parents searching for their children. I listened as the mother and daughter said “I love you” back and forth to each other at least five times before the official returned and our conversation continued.

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  1. Jeremiah inspired the French noun jérémiade, and subsequently the English jeremiad, meaning “a lamentation; mournful complaint,”[55] or further, “a cautionary or angry harangue.”[56[]
  2. See various postings on this website.[]
  3. TIMOTHY WILLIAMS is a junior professor of insecurity and social order at the Universität der Bundeswehr München in Munich, Germany. His work has won awards by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the German Peace Psychologist Association, and Marburg University. He co-edited the volume Perpetrators and Perpetration of Mass Violence: Action, Motivations and Dynamics (with Susanne Buckley-Zistel, 2018).[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.