Friday, September 03, 2010

We're all minorities.

I recently read this in the comments (electronic letters to the editor?) to an article about a case in NJ where the police really screwed up while presenting Miranda rights to a Latino minor and his Spanish-speaking mother. All of which I offer just to provide context. But this isn't about that case. It's about the comment.

Constitutional rights should NOT be afforded to ILLEGALS.

The writer insists that "illegals" should not be afforded Constitutional rights. One has to wonder what rights they should be afforded, in that case. But the Constitution is pretty clear; in most cases, it asserts, rights are inherent in human beings, period (in a few cases, they inhere to citizens, but those are a narrow class of things like political rights, the right to vote, etc.).

Should constitutional rights be "afforded" to someone who has committed murder? Isn't that a crime that's far, far, far worse than the mere infraction (which is all it is, legally) of crossing the border in a manner not in accordance with the law?

Why does it--why do we--affirm (not afford!) the same rights to people who may have, and who have, violated some law?

The answer is simple. It's one to commit to memory and remember every time our sense of anger and outrage and desire for punishment (we like to think of it as "justice" when we feel that way) surges. We affirm and uphold the rights of everyone. All the time. Even--especially--the people who have done terrible, terrible things. Even people who aren't like us. People who are different. People who are scary, who trigger that primitive thing deep in our brains that worries about leopards in trees and monsters under the bed.

We uphold that for them, but not for them. We do it for ourselves.

You see, we do it to ensure that in that terrible moment where we are looked at--justly or not--by someone as the scary thing, the monster, the other, the bad person, we are not outside of being treated with rights. In doing so we are ensured just and equitable treatment by a system that rejects the impulse that judges without facts and understanding and imposes a harsh punishment on the monster under the bed, so that it never, never, never comes back.

But of course it does. The monster under the bed is almost entirely in our heads. It's always with us.

No matter how often we kill it, or imprison it, or treat it brutally (which, I suspect, really doesn't make it go away at all. It feeds the real monster under the bed; the one in our heads).

We "afford" rights to people who might be people who immigrated illegally for the same reason that we afford rights to people accused of murder, or theft, or speeding. We do it for ourselves, so that our rights are protected and held sacred.

The minute that we carve out an exception to this principle, the minute that we except a person, or a group from having the same rights, we put ourselves at extreme risk. If anyone can be put outside the protect of the law, then anyone can be put outside. Including you.

After all, each of us is part of some minority that others might dislike, despise, or fear. History proves that.

It's the lesson that Rev. Martin Niemöller wrote about;

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

You can replace any of those groups, those categories, with any others. Niemöller was writing about what actually happened in Germany. But the lesson is a universal one. (It's worth noting that in the US today, despite the widespread failure of Communism, it--and Communists--are still a pretty powerful monster under the bed. So are trade unionists, for many, despite being down to only several percent of the population (despite their having provided us 40 hour weeks and many other good things...). And it's still easy to find people who fear and hate Jews, too.) Mexican, Tea Partier, Liberal, Conservative, Mormon, Muslim, Gay, Evangelical, and on and on. No group is the majority. Even more to the point, no one is the majority. They just look like it in the moment... if you don't look too closely.

The majority is always a collection of minorities who are--for the moment--ignoring their multitude of differences.

Anyone can fall out of that coalition the minute that they become the moment's monster under the bed.

"Illegals" are afforded the same rights as everyone else, because we insist that everyone has those rights. Not out of generosity, but out of the deepest self-interest. So that when "they" come for us, we're not outside the circle of light that keeps the monsters away.

It's important. The monsters don't like the light. As long as we make sure it shines on all of us, they'll stay deep in the darkness in our heads and hearts.