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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Leonard Pitts Jr.: You can starve an ideal only so long before you kill it altogether

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Tribune Content Agency

Those pictures are traumatizing.

That’s because they contain so much more than what’s in them, so much more than horse-mounted U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Rio Grande in Texas, running down and flogging would-be Haitian immigrants. No, those pictures contain George Floyd and forced removal from ancestral land, contain internment camps and the Pettus Bridge, contain every time the state, in its awful power, came down like a hammer on the head of the tired and poor yearning to breathe free.

That’s why social media was set ablaze Monday, why the White House called the pictures “horrific” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they were “heartbreaking.” It’s why the Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation.

As well they should. Those pictures contain multitudes.

It is a sad fact that we seem to have lost the thread where America is concerned. Indeed, outside the easy patriotism of Lee Greenwood’s song and the ignorant xenophobia of those who think what America really needs is to be made “great again,” there is real concern about the sustainability of this experiment. America, we once liked to say, is the only nation founded upon an ideal.

But an ideal, like any living thing, must be nourished in order to survive. Ours has become severely malnourished, having been fed on empty calories of jingoism and myth, a sepia fable of virtues many of us love to trumpet — liberty! justice! for all! — without really trying to live.

The cognitive disconnect between trumpeting and living is something else that is visible in those pictures. “This is why your country is s**t, because you use your women for this,” one agent announced to a group of women and children in a video uploaded by Al Jazeera. As if enslavement by colonizers, and a 19-year U.S. occupation that brought puppet government, forced labor, U.S. control of Haitian finances, brutal violence and racist paternalism — “Think of it!” said William Jennings Bryan, secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, “N****rs speaking French.” — did not play some role in Haiti’s present challenges.

No, says an ignoramus on horseback. Your country is bleep because you seek to flee its wretchedness. What country’s wretchedness do you suppose the ignoramus’ family once fled to get here? And why does the ignoramus forget?

Never mind.

This is not an argument that seeking asylum is a human and legal right, though it is both. No, this argument is grounded upon a simpler point: Human beings deserve to be treated like human beings.

One was appalled, but not particularly surprised, to have to say that when the Trump administration made cruelty its policy, caging mothers and fathers and snatching away their children. But one is both appalled and surprised to have to say it again now that Joe Biden is president. One is also disappointed. What happened this week on his watch is nothing less than an outrage.

Obviously, there is a need to re-think U.S. immigration policy and enforcement. Like the military and the police, the Border Patrol must be purged of the nationalists and extremists who seem to have found a home in its ranks. Any individual who thinks it’s a good idea to jump on a horse and herd human beings like cattle is an individual who needs to be employed elsewhere. Because if those pictures contain multitudes, they also contain a warning thoughtful Americans will heed.

You can starve an ideal only so long before you kill it altogether.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at