A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. But this one is worth a million tweets. In political consequence, it is like the one taken of President George W. Bush surveying the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — by peering out the window of Air Force One. As Bush himself later acknowledged, the photo made him look “detached and uncaring.” It reinforced his frat-boy image.
Of course, Trump is nowhere near the crying Honduran girl. But his fingerprints are all over the picture. It was the stern implementation of his policy that separated children from their parents — “zero tolerance” in the stirring words of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions defended the policy by citing a biblical verse historically used to defend slavery — in essence, that the government is always right. Not then, certainly, and not now.
The outcry against the policy is such that it cannot last. It has been denounced by leading Republicans, most notably former first lady Laura Bush. Even the current first lady has spoken up — sort of. In keeping with a Trump family tradition, she essentially attributed the problem to “both sides” — Democrats as well as Republicans — evoking the formula her husband used to lay blame for the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville last year. She is wrong about that. The policy is her husband’s. When she sees him, she should ask.
Moore’s picture is of a very special category — the pain of innocent children. It is reminiscent of the one Nick Ut of the Associated Press took of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack in 1972. The picture summed up the horror of that war and the toll being taken on civilians.
Similarly, the plight of Syrian refugees was indelibly caught by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir with her photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying facedown on the beach at Bodrum, Turkey, drowned. He and his family were trying to reach Greece when their boat capsized.
And there was the boy in the cap being rounded up by German soldiers as they cleared the Warsaw Ghetto of its remaining Jews in 1943. He is surely under 10, his hands held high in surrender, a newsboy’s cap on his head, a terrified expression on his face as he sets off to his almost certain murder. He remains unidentified, but, once seen, unforgettable.
It’s odd that Trump, who rose to the White House on the power of image, did not grasp how he would be hurt by the tears of a little girl. The picture captures both his policy and his persona. He is a man without empathy, after all. He belittled the hideous torture of John McCain, mocked the physical disability of a reporter, called Mexicans rapists, denigrated all Muslims and referred to impoverished nations as “shithole countries.” His narcissism is heroic. His sympathy, like much of his charity, is reserved for himself.
Cruelty has its selective appeal. Some confuse it with strength. Surely some in Trump’s base will see Moore’s picture and cheer. It will prove to them that Trump is serious about eliminating illegal immigration, returning America to a land of Saturday Evening Post covers, making it robustly heterosexual, white in color and culture and flag-loving in a way that he approves of. They might blame the child’s parents for her plight and castigate them as illegal immigrants who deserve no rights, even if they irreducibly have the ones we were all born with.
This time, it seems, Trump has gone too far. His White House stooges defend his policy, but we are a nation of parents. Parenthood humbles us all, makes us tremble from the immense power of tiny hugs. This — the need to comfort a child — is what we have in common with all human beings and why we are simultaneously moved by the girl in the picture and unforgiving of the man looming outside the frame.