I want to write today about a suicide that has profound moral implications for what it means to be an American in 2018. And no, I'm not talking about either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain (although Bourdain is oddly relevant … stay with me on this.) This is about Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old Honduran who died all alone last month in a rural Texas jail cell, with an item of clothing around his neck and a small pool of blood on a padded floor.
Muñoz was a casualty of the Trump administration's cruel and inhuman "zero tolerance" policies. Fleeing Honduras — the Central American nation wracked by a murder epidemic, gang violence and numbing poverty, Munoz, his wife and his 3-year-old son were seized by Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande into south Texas.
At the nearby processing center in McAllen, the Munoz family asked for asylum in the nation that once celebrated its willingness to accept the tired, poor and hungry of the world. But that was a different century. This is 2018, and agents instead violently ripped the toddler out of the arms of a screaming Muñoz.
"The guy lost his s—," an unnamed agent told the Washington Post's Nick Miroff, who broke the story. "They had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands."
It seems clear that Muñoz never recovered from the trauma of that moment, or not knowing where his son had been taken. He pounded on metal bars, kicked at the van that took him away, and tried frantically to escape, leading the agents to put him in shackles before finding a padded cell for him in a county jail 40 miles away. The next morning, guards who checked on Muñoz found him praying. Thirty minutes later, they checked again and found him dead, by suicide.
Another agent told the Post's Miroff "he couldn't understand why Muñoz 'would choose to separate himself from his family forever' by taking his own life." But it's impossible to know how the fragile human psyche will respond to such great trauma. And since becoming president some 506 days ago, Donald Trump and his minions like Attorney General Jeff Sessions have unleashed policies on America's southern border with the clear goal of inflicting trauma on migrant families, banishing empathy or anything else resembling simple humanity.
We've been talking for months about how these steps — that "zero-tolerance" policy unveiled weeks ago by Sessions to prosecute migrants asking for asylum in the United States as criminals and take away their kids, even toddlers; the militarization of America's border; and the out-of-control deportation force that is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE — are causing a human-rights catastrophe on our own soil. Now comes the dreaded but inevitable next phase.
People are dying.
Marco Antonio Muñoz is dead.
Claudia Patricia Gómez González is dead. A vivacious-looking 19-year-old woman who'd studied accounting and journeyed 1,500 miles north when she was unable to find work at home, Gonzáles was shot by a Border Patrol agent just north of the Texas border with Mexico last month. The federal agency has already changed its version of what happened once — now it says an officer was "allegedly assaulted" — but her grieving relatives are still baffled. "There are many people that have been treated like animals," her aunt told reporters in Guatemala City, "and that isn't what we should do as people."
Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco is dead. He was the same age as González. His parents had brought him to a stable life in Iowa when he was only 3. Like most 19-year-olds, he made some mistakes — marijuana and driving offenses. That brought him to the attention of America's stepped-up deportation forces, who stripped Pacheco — a teen dad, about to graduate high school — of his "Dreamer" status and took him across the border from Laredo, Texas, into Mexico, the "homeland" he'd never known. He was killed by drug gangs there just three weeks later. His parents were too fearful of U.S. authorities to attend his funeral.
The circumstances of these deaths are different — but they all stem from the same disease, a pathological and small-minded need to divide people. That need gets exploited by opportunistic politicians and ratings-starved media personalities instead of prompting an attempt, staring from our shared humanity, to find common-sense solutions to migration. Solutions that might save beautiful 19-year-olds with so much to live for.
Instead, the exploiter-in-chief resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he pays attention to few other policy issues besides keeping brown-skinned people from what he calls "shithole countries" out of the United States, ranting about the monthly number of border crossings because the short-fingered vulgarian somehow sees immigration as a threat to his fragile manhood.
In recent weeks, the personal cruelty of Donald Trump has been translated into official United States policy — and the human toll is staggering. The Intercept, which has done some strong reporting on the growing moral crisis at the border, did the math and calculated that at least 1,358 children — and possibly closer to 1,500 to 2,000 — have already been separated from their parents in only the first month or so of the administration's "zero-tolerance" scheme. In addition, the flood of asylum-seekers suddenly facing criminal prosecution has led to mass trials that present a dystopian nightmare view of modern America.
But no picture or statistic can truly capture the mental anguish in the mind of a young child who's been forcibly separated from his parents, with little or no understanding of where they are or when — if ever — they will see their mommy and daddy again. Miriam Jordan of the New York Times recently tracked down one 5-year-old from Honduras who was separated from his family and placed in a home in Michigan, clinging to stick-figure sketches he drew of his dad and his entire family.
As I noted in my last column on this topic, American immigration policy was deeply morally flawed before Trump arrived on the scene — brewed in the aftermath of 9/11 to treat a human problem as "homeland security," with vast detention centers, festered under past presidents like Barack Obama and past Congresses all too feckless to deal with the mess. But the zero-tolerance policy is itself intolerable, not to mention unconscionable and unnecessary. The rest of the world is looking at America and our growing immigration gulag and wondering what the hell happened here.
If you raise kids here on the Eastern Seaboard, they've probably taken a field trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, or observed Holocaust Remembrance Day in their classroom. We've done the right thing in teaching our children (and hopefully ourselves) to say, "Never again." But we have to understand that "again" won't come with a big bang and a giant sign that says "Human Rights Disaster!" Instead, it comes with these small but accelerating official acts of cruelty until the train is going too fast to stop — and with too many people too afraid to take the very real risk of speaking out to stop it.
I mentioned Anthony Bourdain earlier. Like millions of Americans, I was a fan who marveled at the chef-turned-writer's unique brand of macho empathy, and was devastated by news of his suicide. For a time, I thought about writing a very different column today — but then I thought about Bourdain and his most compelling trait, how he used his giant platform to show the world the people who you don't normally see on American television. He was a tattooed warrior for the planet's rainbow of colors, its poor and oppressed people, and for immigrants.
"If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he's talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down," Bourdain said during the 2016 campaign, and months later he visited Houston to highlight how immigrant chefs have so enriched the city. In his death, Bourdain wouldn't want our think pieces. He'd want us to do something. And the only sane way to mourn the unfathomable is to fight for the things that Bourdain fought for when he was alive — and to see that America is at a crossroads between the compassion he represented and the cruelty our president advocates.
We all know now what's happened to America these last 506 days. The question is, What are you and I going to do about this? As some have noted since the early days of the Trump administration, whatever you would have done during the other great moral crises that have afflicted our modern world — the Holocaust, or the fight to end segregation in the American South — is what you are doing, or not doing, right now.