A Choice Between Cruelty and Mercy

Jun 19, 2018, 01:05 PM

“The man the city sets up in authority must be obeyed in small things and just but also in their opposites,” declares the tyrannical king in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone. The plan to which he demands obedience calls for separating a brother and a sister across the city’s border—an act terrible in its cruelty but, he argues, necessary for security. The king wants to reestablish order in the city, and he is using the brother’s fate as deterrence.

In the family separation described by Sophocles, the brother is not just exiled but dead; the king, Creon, has left his body to rot outside the city walls without a burial. The Trump administration has not engineered anything quite this cruel. But when it justifies pulling migrant parents away from their children at the U.S. border, it is speaking Creon’s language.

The New York Times reports that the administration began systematically separating parents from children at the border last month, reasoning that a policy this cruel would deter other would-be migrants from making the trip north. Almost 2,000 children were removed from their parents between April 18 and May 31. In the eight months prior, 700 children were separated.

“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period,” said White House aide Stephen Miller, who engineered the policy. “The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.” “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon went a step further: “The morality is the law,” he said when confronted with a photograph of a crying child.

This is Creon’s position: The law is the law and must be followed, and it is good to follow it because it is the law. But Creon ends the play a husk, destroyed by the cruelty of his own arguments. And reading the 2,500-year-old text today is a reminder both of the visceral wrongness of what is happening at the border and of the emptiness of the administration’s arguments about law enforcement.

Antigone is a simple story. Pole=uh=nice=seas, the brother of the play’s heroine, is killed while leading an attack on the city of Thebes during a civil war. Creon, who has taken power, orders his corpse left outside the city walls as a warning. Antigone nevertheless insists on her religious obligation to bury her brother. Creon himself is convinced of his own error only after he orders Antigone killed and his own son—Antigone’s fiancé—kills himself in protest.

The play is about law, authority, and defiance. It is also about borders. In banishing Polynices’s body, Creon is reaffirming the distinction between who he wants in his city and who he doesn’t, defining the boundaries of his community. He refuses to allow Polynices back into Thebes, even in death, and refuses Antigone passage out of Thebes to bury her brother. When she sneaks out in the night and does so anyway, Creon is furious. He demands her execution. The choice is either order or disorder, he reasons, and the danger of disorder is so great that the cruelty of order is justified.

Like Creon, the White House uses the specter of chaos to justify its “zero tolerance” policy. “There is nothing worse than disobedience to authority,” Creon says, explaining why Antigone’s transgression must be punished with death. “It destroys cities, it demolishes homes.” Similarly, Miller told the Times, “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement.”

The anxiety of the border as the focal point of lawlessness has been a theme throughout Trump’s presidency: In October 2017, for example, Sessions linked what he described as an absence of immigration enforcement with a wider breakdown in “respect for the rule of law.” And on Monday, the president declared: “A county without borders is not ...