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Opinion How to sleep at night when families are being separated at the border

A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a mother and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Tex. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The trick is forgetting they are children.

If you remember that they are children, you will not be able to go on with any of this. If you remember when you were a child, and frightened, and everything seemed impossibly big and loud and sharp and hard except a certain pair of familiar arms, this will have to stop.

The trick is forgetting that there is such a word as “child.” To remember words like “bad hombre” and “thug” instead. You do not have to say “animals,” if you do not want to. There are other ways. “To assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be wrong,” Sean Spicer bumbled last year.

Deterrent” is a good word, too. “Zero-tolerance” is even better. And no one likes the idea of a “human shield.”

The trick is to wrap this up in words so tightly that you cannot see the child inside.

The trick is to reassure yourself that this is what they deserve, that what makes you different, that what makes your children children and not threats or thugs is something within your control. That the fact that you have nothing to run from is because of your particular virtue. (“You’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent!” Brian Karem tried during the White House press briefing last Thursday. “Brian, God, settle down. … I know you want to get some more TV time, but that’s not what this is about.”)

Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig takes issue with the way Attorney General Jeff Sessions is using scripture to justify separating families at the border. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The trick is to remind yourself that this could be worse. That some of them are, of course, not in cages. (This is a fact of which is quite proud. They are not all in cages.) When they are literally torn from their mothers’ breasts, which you thought happened only in the careless metaphors of people losing online arguments, they are not also smeared with soot like Dickensian orphans and given coarse rags to wear, at least not on the footage released to media. They are orphans, sure, but there is nothing Dickensian about them.

The trick is not to admit that this is happening. The trick is not to see pictures of it, except the footage the Department of Health and Human Services provides that barely shows any children at all, mostly long shots of murals (a poster of the Justice League; a lingering shot of a seasick-looking Superman, himself an illegal alien, smiling miserably down from a wall) with the occasional glimpse of children that do not show any of the running and screaming and attempting suicide.

None of this requires magic that has never been performed before. We were adept at it for centuries. If we squinted just right, it was possible to look and see not a child but a commodity (“For Sale… A Girl, Eleven years old, used to the care of children. A Boy, Ten years old”), or a threat that needed to be locked behind barbed wire (“The whole Japanese population is properly under suspicion as to its loyalties… they need to be restrained for the safety of California and the United States”).

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We are still adept at it when it is convenient. When the alternative would be to admit that we have put a bullet into a child, it is amazing how the child transforms into a man and the toy in his hand mutates into a dangerous weapon.

People marched to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles on June 14, galvanized by reports of immigrant parents being separated from their children. (Video: The Washington Post)

It is only true that we have never done this, that this is not what we do, if you forget that they were children, too, before.

But these are children, now, and they have not been here very long, and they are still learning where everything is, and they are still at an age where something can be unthinkable because there has simply not been enough time to think it yet, where a thing that has only happened for a year can be a thing that has happened for as long as you can remember.

Time is different when you are a child. Every day stretches into forever. New worlds can be invented and discarded in the course of a single afternoon. And America can be a place that has always done a thing or America can be a place that has never done a thing except in stories or in nightmares.

If we stop this now, right now, this instant, after a year or two or three there will be children who know that America would never do such a thing. And then we must keep not doing it. We must stop this until they are not children any longer, and then never do it again.

The trick is not forgetting they are children. The trick is never forgetting again.