Let's just get right into this: Something is going very wrong in this country, and it's all happening very quickly. You turn on the news or log into Twitter (something I do about 15 times a day too often) and the headlines just come at you like waves of electroshock therapy.
Let's start with the biggest jolt: The story that just came out about Philadelphia native Muhammad Ali Jr., who -- having lost his dad not that long ago -- was hassled and detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers
earlier this month at the airport in Fort Lauderdale. The son of the late heavyweight champ and American icon was returning with his mom from Jamaica, where Ali had spoken at an event honoring (wait for it) Black History Month.
Ali is a frequent traveler who'd never had a hard time with U.S. Customs before -- not surprising, not only because of his pedigree but because he's an American citizen with a valid passport. But less than three weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, everything was suddenly different. Ali and his mom were both taken into custody. Khalilah Camacho-Ali was released quickly after she was able to impress officers with a picture of herself and her famous late ex-husband, but her son -- with no such photo -- was grilled for two long hours.
"Where did you get your name from?" the agents asked, as a lawyer and family friend later recounted to the Louisville Courier-Journal, and then, repeatedly, "Are you a Muslim?"
Are you a Muslim?
Muhammad Ali Jr. in fact is -- like his dad -- a Muslim. But that fact shouldn't matter. It's almost as if the 44-year-old American was facing a religious test -- one of the few things explicitly barred in the U.S. Constitution. A spokesman for the Border Patrol has confirmed that Ali was detained but denied any religious discrimination. In another time, maybe you could leave the story there - a bizarre isolated incident.
But this is not another time, and this was not an isolated incident. Let's look at other recent headlines -- all of them involving U.S. agents working for an arm of Homeland Security, from either Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE):
Item: A prominent French historian was wrongfully detained by CBP agents for 10 hours after he flew from Paris to Houston seeking to attend an academic symposium at Texas A&M, in what quickly became an international incident to angry officials in his home country. "There is no excuse for what happened to Henry Rousso," Emmanuel Macron, the frontrunner in the French presidential election, tweeted, adding: "Our country is open to scientists and intellectuals." Rousso is -- wait for it, again -- an expert in (among other things) anti-Semitism during World War II.
Item: "A best-selling Australian children's book writer said she was traumatized and 'sobbed like a baby'' after being wrongfully detained and aggressively questioned by US border control officials in Los Angeles," reports the Boston Globe. Like Rousso, Mem Fox was on her way to speak at a symposium. Like Ali, she said she had passed through American customs numerous times -- and never had problem before now.
Item: Last week, passengers on board a Delta Airlines domestic flight from San Francisco to New York's JFK Airport were stunned when flight attendants told them they would have to show "their documents" to CBP agents waiting at the gate. Federal officials confirmed they were acting on a tip -- which didn't pan out -- that an immigrant facing deportation was aboard. A lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union called the search "alarming."
Item: Meanwhile, stepped-up enforcement activities by ICE since the start of the new administration continue to sow fear in immigrant communities -- and to anger municipal officials. The latest: Police in Santa Cruz, California, are considering halting cooperation with the federal immigration force after "a betrayal of trust" in which ICE, the local cops claim, was deliberately dishonest about the purpose of a supposed gang raid that instead targeted undocumented migrants.
That comes on the heels of a series of stepped-up ICE enforcement actions -- detaining people outside church sanctuaries, after a domestic-abuse hearing, or from hospitals, or immigrants with a work permit, all departures from normal practices under the Obama administration, and all creating a climate where migrant families are terrified to stray even as far as their corner store.
Much of this was happening before the Department of Homeland Security issued its new policies that are expected to lead to more enforcement actions and large-scale deportations. Indeed, what's downright alarming about what's going on right now is that the worst abuses aren't even the result of anything that's been put in writing. Rather, the story is that America's immigration cops are running amok, inspired by President Trump's broader vision -- as voiced by Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer -- to "take the shackles off" these federal law officers.
It all sounds very much like the guards a decade ago at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison who late said they'd been told to "take the gloves off." Serious human rights violations happened then, and what's happening now is a new assault on basic rights that can only get worse.
Here's how the New York Times described the phenomenon in a front-page story earlier today: "Immigration Agents Discover New Freedom to Deport Under Trump." The article, based heavily on interviews with federal agents who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the immigration forces are "newly emboldened, newly empowered and already getting to work," with the union representing many ICE and CBP officers saying morale is suddenly high now that officers are arresting more people.
The Times reported:
A whirlwind of activity has overtaken ICE headquarters in Washington in recent weeks, with employees attending back-to-back meetings about how to quickly carry out President Trump's plans. "Some people are like: 'This is great. Let's give them all the tools they need,'" said a senior staff member at headquarters, who joined the department under the administration of George W. Bush.
But, the official added, "other people are a little bit more hesitant and fearful about how quickly things are moving."
Two officials in Washington said that the shift — and the new enthusiasm that has come with it — seems to have encouraged pro-Trump political comments and banter that struck the officials as brazen or gung-ho, like remarks about their jobs becoming "fun." Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced, the officials said.
By all means. officers, take pride in doing your job well, as many of you do. But there is something gut-wrenching about describing the task as "fun," especially with so many reports that immigration agents are not just overstepping their bounds but increasingly out of control. There's a tendency to view this solely as a moral indictment of President Trump -- of the divisive, xenophobic campaign that he ran and how those his harsh words and now his executive orders are driving this crackdown. But we need to focus more on the role of Trump's not-so-secret-police.
Let's be honest: This is a moral failing on a widespread scale. Too many rank-and-file officers had in fact begged for this new abusive climate. You can't really say they are "just following orders" -- because they wanted these orders. And too many good people within the ranks of Homeland Security are afraid to speak up. This all sounds tragically familiar.
Just a few weeks ago, I was surprised but also intrigued by an op-ed that appeared in the Baltimore Sun, on the weekend of Trump's Muslim travel ban (which he insists is not a Muslim travel ban). The author said we should ponder more deeply the actions of the lower-level officers who were detaining and sometimes mistreating airport arrivals.
"The men and women who reportedly handcuffed small children and the elderly, separated a child from his mother and held others without food for 20 hours, are undoubtedly 'ordinary' people," American University professor Chris Edelson wrote. "What I mean by that, is that these are, in normal circumstances, people who likely treat their neighbors and co-workers with kindness and do not intentionally seek to harm others. That is chilling, as it is a reminder that authoritarians have no trouble finding the people they need to carry out their acts of cruelty. They do not need special monsters; they can issue orders to otherwise unexceptional people who will carry them out dutifully."
It was a striking piece, but now a few weeks later the situation seems actually worse than what he wrote, with these so-called "unexceptional people" actually finding "fun" in carrying out brutal policies for America's new strongman in the White House.
People need to wake up -- because this situation is going downhill, very fast. The idea of America as a shining city on the hill and a global beacon for human rights is slipping past the point of no return. Trump has been president for just 37 days, and we are becoming a global pariah. Overseas travel to the United States is dropping rapidly. In India, the front pages of major newspapers are plastered with articles about the apparent hate-crime murder in Kansas of two Indian-American engineers -- a travesty about which our ever-tweeting president has remained silent. Today's shocking vandalism against a Jewish cemetery right here in Philadelphia is just the latest headline that has the world asking: What has happened to America.