We Can Never Say We Didn’t Know
A photo of a drowned father and daughter makes us all accessories to tragedy. Will we do anything to stop it?
The story began like this: Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez fled El Salvador with his wife, Tania Vanessa Avalos, and their 23-month old daughter, Valeria — not from violence, but from extreme poverty, hoping to find refuge and a better life in the United States. They spent months waiting for an appointment to formally apply for asylum. But by Sunday, they were standing on the banks of the Rio Grande, growing desperate after officials told them the international bridge was closed.
So they decided to cross the river.
Officials recovered Martinez and Valeria’s bodies a day later. They were face-down against the bank of the river. Martinez first entered the water with his daughter on his back; Ávalos was close behind. But after growing tired, she returned to the Mexico side of the river. She later told authorities that she watched as her husband and daughter slipped beneath the current. When officials found their bodies, Valeria was still tucked under her father’s t-shirt, her small right arm draped around his neck for safety.
The photo of the two lifeless figures in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande has captured global attention, carrying an eerily familiar emotional heft, similar to the image of Alan Kurdi, the drown 3-year-old Syrian refugee who was pulled from the Mediterranean in 2015. That shocking image galvanized opinion about the Syrian migrant crisis, and the civil war Kurdi and his family fled from, alongside millions of others. The key difference for Americans, of course, is the shoreline versus the riverbank. In 2015, Kurdi was the victim of a monstrous tragedy far away. The Martinez family are victims of one unfolding much closer to home.
In the days preceding the deaths of Martinez and Valeria, fresh reports detailing conditions at migrant camps along the southern U.S. border once again highlighted the stakes for those who try to cross it — especially those with children.
Last week, a legal team gained rare access to one of the many camps that collectively house thousands of migrant children, and they disclosed details of the deplorable conditions to the Associated Press. They reported seeing kids who were ill, and lacked adequate food, water, and sanitation. One 2-year old boy had “wet his pants and had no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt.”
Once we are honest about who they are, what is happening to them can never be truly justified.
“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” Holly Cooper, who represents detained youth and is the co-director of the University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic, told the AP.
The latest reports landed in the middle of a pitched rhetorical battle launched after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the border facilities “concentration camps.” The resulting debate tracked the usual partisan lines, but Ocasio-Cortez’s description, as Andrea Pitzer explained at the New York Review of Books, is likely accurate, especially considering historical examples beyond that which comes most easily to mind: the Nazi camps of pre-war and wartime Germany and eastern Europe.
Still, the Nazi camps offer a powerful example of the varrying approaches toward how societies treat the unwanted, illustrated by the ways its members regarded the actions of their state. One of the most enduring questions following the Second World War was how German citizens stood by and allowed their government to intern and murder millions of people — primarily Jews, but other so-called “undesirables” and dissidents. Why did enough Germans not succeed in organizing a serious collective opposition when they had the chance? How, in other words, did they let it happen?
American research professor Milton Mayer offered some insight after working in Germany in the years following the war. Mayer spent time in a small Hessian town he dubbed “Kronenberg,” interviewing and, in some cases, befriending a handful of locals (all men) who lived through the war, most of whom were involved in the Nazi movement to varying degrees. As he spoke to them about their experiences and asked them to explain what happened — how the Nazis had taken power and held it — time and again, his interview subjects circled back to the Jews, often unprompted, and to the Nazi talking points, myths, and lies that had initially fueled and sustained the hatred against them.
“The one passion they seemed to have left was anti-Semitism, the one fire that warmed them still,” Mayer wrote. “I thought, as they went on, of the customary analysis: We have to justify our having injured those we have injured, or we have to persuade others to our guilty view in order to implicate them in our guilt.”
With every speech in which President Donald Trump calls for border protection or raises fears of migrants, or whenever his supporters or media sycophants echo him, the same technique is at play: relying on distortions, creating lies about who the migrants are to justify the inhumane conditions.
But we know the truth. We know who they are. It is clear in the photo of Martinez and Valeria’s bodies washed ashore on the banks of the Rio Grande. They are parents trying to find a better life. They are a mother struggling to swim. They are a father fighting to keep his daughter afloat. They are a baby girl clinging to her daddy in fear. They are humans deserving of humanity. And, once we are honest about who they are, what is happening to them can never be truly justified.
And we can never say that we didn’t know.