The day we used tear gas against chil­dren

Belleville News-Democrat - - Opinion - BY LEONARD PITTS JR. Mi­ami Her­ald Email Leonard Pitts Jr. at [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com.

The United States is com­posed of 329 mil­lion peo­ple spread over 3.8 mil­lion square miles. In pop­u­la­tion and land­mass, it’s a pretty big place. But those are not the only cri­te­ria that mat­ter.

Moral­ity mat­ters, too. And on Sun­day, by that mea­sure at least, this coun­try seemed rather small. That, of course, was the day we used tear gas against chil­dren.

It be­gan at a bor­der cross­ing in San Diego, when a group of Cen­tral Amer­i­can refugees who had been packed into what the Los An­ge­les Times de­scribed as a tent city that “smells strongly of sewage” while they waited to ap­ply for asy­lum, rushed the bor­der. The Times re­ported that “a small group of men and teenage boys” reached a hole in the bor­der fence, where some threw rocks, strik­ing Bor­der Pa­trol agents, none of whom was se­ri­ously in­jured.

The Bor­der Pa­trol re­sponded by lob­bing tear gas into Mex­ico. The news filled with im­ages of poor peo­ple, some of them chil­dren, some of them bare­foot, some of them in di­a­pers, scam­per­ing to es­cape the sting­ing, chok­ing clouds. Don­ald Trump called on Mex­ico to send “flag wav­ing Mi­grants, many of whom are stone cold crim­i­nals, back to their coun­tries.”

And one felt a large coun­try shrink­ing.

Rep. Mark Po­can of Wis­con­sin called the gassing “a new low.” Sen. Cory Booker called it “ugly, cruel & cow­ardly.” Author Tana­narive Due, whose late mother suf­fered per­ma­nent eye dam­age af­ter be­ing tear-gassed dur­ing a non­vi­o­lent civil rights march in 1960, called it “mon­strous.”

Not even Ger­aldo Rivera, who in­fa­mously blamed Trayvon Martin for his own mur­der be­cause he wore a hooded sweat­shirt in the rain, could coun­te­nance what he saw. “This tear gas choked me,” he said on Fox “News.” He de­manded that Amer­ica stop treat­ing “these eco­nomic refugees as if they were zom­bies from ‘The Walk­ing Dead.’

“This is ab­so­lutely painful to watch,” added Rivera, his voice sharp and ris­ing. “We are a na­tion of im­mi­grants. These are des­per­ate peo­ple! They walked 2,000 miles! Why? Be­cause they want to rape your daugh­ter or steal your lunch? No, be­cause they want a job!”

And yes, strip away all the hy­per­bole, and it re­ally is that sim­ple. They want jobs. They want homes. They want to be safe from po­lit­i­cal and gang vi­o­lence. More­over, most of them – rock-throw­ers not­with­stand­ing – were fol­low­ing the legally pre­scribed pro­ce­dure for get­ting those things.

In treat­ing them like zom­bies, Amer­ica be­trays the best of its own his­tory. Af­ter all, we have of­ten been a na­tion that did big things.

When the world needed sav­ing, we saved it.

When Europe needed re­build­ing, we re­built it.

When the Cold War needed win­ning, we won it.

But when a group of im­mi­grants needed asy­lum, we gassed it.

This is less an ar­gu­ment about pol­i­tics than about our na­tional soul, about who and what we are. Yes, Amer­ica is one of the largest na­tions on Earth. But on Sun­day, Amer­ica gassed chil­dren.

And that’s one of the smaller things we’ve ever done.

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