What kind of people are we? As a society, are we so decadent and insecure that we show "toughness" by deliberately being cruel to innocent children? Is this what our nation has come to? Or are we better than that?

This election demands we answer those questions. The choice between President Trump and Joe Biden is not just political. It is also moral. And perhaps nothing more starkly illustrates the moral dimension of that decision than the Trump administration's policy of kidnapping children at the southern U.S. border, ripping them away from their families — and doing so for no reason other than to demonstrate Trump's warped vision of American strength.

We learned this week that some of those separations will probably be permanent. As NBC News first reported, 545 boys and girls taken as many as three years ago — the children of would-be immigrants and asylum seekers, mostly from Central America — have not been reunited with their parents and may never see their families again.

These are not among the nearly 3,000 families separated at the border in 2018, when children were kept in cages like animals or shipped away to facilities across the country, hundreds or thousands of miles from the border. We now know, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union and other pro bono lawyers, that an additional 1,500 children were torn away from their families beginning in 2017, when the Trump administration conducted a trial run of the separation policy.

Please think about that. The shocking scenes we saw two years ago did not result from a sudden spasm of presidential anger. They didn't stem from a Fox News segment Trump might have seen one evening. Rather, the administration rehearsed this form of cruelty.

What the administration did not plan for was how to reunite the children taken in 2017 with their families. Many of the parents were deported, and their children were placed in shelters around the country, then ostensibly released to parents or guardians, placements that the ACLU is still trying to confirm.

The ACLU and other organizations have sent investigators to towns and villages in Central America in an attempt to find the kidnapped children's families — an effort complicated not just by time and distance, but also by the covid-19 pandemic. Parents of 545 children have not been found, the ACLU reported this week.

Disturbingly, the Department of Homeland Security suggested that some of the parents declined to get their children back so they could remain in the United States. Keep in mind that most of these families were seeking asylum from deadly violence in their home countries. The Trump administration changed immigration guidelines to make it unlikely that the families would ultimately be allowed to stay in the United States, but federal law gives them the right to apply for asylum and to have their cases heard. They did nothing wrong. They should never have been asked to choose between parenting their children and getting them to safety — not by their home countries, and not by the United States.

Trump's racism and xenophobia have been hallmarks of his presidency from the beginning, so perhaps it should be no surprise that he would preside over such an outrage. But he didn't do this by himself. He had plenty of help.

Former attorney general Jeff Sessions seized an opportunity to make his rabid antipathy toward Hispanic immigration into policy. White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a former Sessions aide in the Senate, was the architect of Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy. Then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said in 2018 that the children taken would be "taken care of — put into foster care or whatever." Former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last year that she regretted that "information flow and coordination to quickly reunite the families was clearly not in place" — but not the separations themselves.

If you have minor children, imagine taking them on a harrowing trek across Mexico in search of safety and opportunity. Imagine having your kids snatched away by anonymous agents of the U.S. government. Imagine being summarily sent home, not knowing where your children are or when you might see them again. Imagine hearing nothing for three long years from the people who took your children.

Then tell me why somebody shouldn't go to jail for this.

It is easy to engage in hyperbole about the Trump administration — the worst this, the most outrageous that. But I honestly never believed my country would treat defenseless children this way. I never believed we would tolerate a president capable of such evil. Soon we will find out whether I was right or wrong.

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