Children wrap themselves in Mylar blankets. In Thailand, the blankets cover young soccer players trapped two and a half miles inside a flooded cave system. In the United States, the same type of blankets cover children sleeping on a concrete floor in a detention center for immigrants in McAllen, Texas. Nature created one of these tragedies; we created the other one.
The media offers us minute-by-minute updates about how the Thai children, in a race against time, might escape tragedy. Television viewers tune out of their local and day-to-day problems and tune in to the media coverage. What are the current oxygen levels in the cave? How many countries have joined the effort to save them? Are the boys capable of learning how to use scuba equipment before their time runs out? They hear the expert opinions of doctors, divers, and cavers as they prognosticate about all possible solutions. We see images of the boys; some are smiling. We learn about the attempt to lay a fiber optic cable through the cave system so that these children might communicate with their parents.
We know less about the children our own government has detained. One audio clip gave them voice; we heard them screaming for their parents. We know some of them use porta-potties. They are kept behind the same kind of chain-link fence that many of us use to confine our dogs. The president has described their kind as “animals.”
Surely most of us, no matter what our political bent, feel sad for the entrapped children in both circumstances. But our collective conscience leads us to two different interventions on their behalf. Though some of us have stood in front of the buses that transport the children to and from their cages, others have defended President Trump’s callous policies toward immigrant families.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, directed blame and moral condemnation toward the parents: “They are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek.” No one seems to be blaming the Thai soccer coach for taking his players into the cave. Thailand leads the search and rescue mission, but many other nations are contributing assistance and resources, including United States military personnel.
How do we explain such different responses to these tragedies of entrapment? The mainstream media and Americans at large hold different visions of who these children are. They have national, racial, and ethnic identities that influence what we are willing to do—or not do—to assist them. The Thai children seem to be understood primarily as innocent victims of fate, trapped by nature in their own country and at a safe distance from the United States. We’re obsessed and fascinated by them. They are different but still part of our shared human community. Our sense of “us” can safely expand to include them.
But the “illegal” kids are migrants whose parents—Trump has described them as “rapists”—threaten U.S. national security and Americans’ personal safety and quality of life. According to Sessions, whereas their parents are to blame for the kids’ detention, “the United States goes to extraordinary lengths to protect them while the parents go through a short detention period.”
Sessions famously attempted to justify the cruelty of caging children by appealing to the Bible, citing Romans 13. But that didn’t work so Trump eventually signed an executive order requiring the government to end the separation of families and to detain the children with their parents. These families remain in detention centers that look too much like Manzanar, Gila River, Topaz, and the six other World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps.
Why does our conscience lead us to such dramatically different interventions regarding these two cases of suffering children? The workings of psychological displacement—the defense mechanism whereby we unconsciously substitute a new object for one deemed threatening or unacceptable—might offer an explanation. On the one hand, the alien kids in cages threaten us because they conjure feelings of sympathy that might inspire us to change our harsh policies of deportation.
At a safe distance and with such convenient timing, on the other hand, the Thai children are safe objects of our sympathy and sadness. We can substitute our feelings of abhorrence and, dare we say, guilt at the site of caged children here in the United States, for an obsession with the trapped Thai children. They threaten no one. They are victims of nature. Their entrapment is not our fault. Our feelings are safe with them.
We have room in our hearts for all of these children. But the question facing us as an American community is whether we will make room in our country for the kids who are already here, the children in cages who suffer from our terrible neglect.