Arizona’s new and far-reaching immigration law is bad on a lot of levels, including economic, social and legal , but it is also profoundly corrosive from a moral standpoint.
“Reasonable suspicion” as the pretext for law enforcement deciding whom to investigate relies on the idea that it is OK for our primary approach to our neighbor to be one based on distrust, before that neighbor has done anything that might be considered wrong. This is a disastrous attitude for a democracy to develop because it will erode the very cement that holds us together as a people.
This new Arizona immigration law is morally corrupting of who we should want to be as an Americans who live in an open society and cherish freedom and democracy. It’s more like the closed and suspicious societies behind the “Iron Curtain” that we decried so much during the Cold War.
I went to a church meeting in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The organizers of the conference were peace activists I knew through church contacts and through anti-nuclear organizing. Of course I had to carry my passport and other papers indicating I was in East Berlin legally–one would expect that in a foreign country. But the East Germans had to constantly have documentation. This really struck me as so different from the U.S. In addition, men in black raincoats and black hats carrying cameras were constantly about; this is the only conference I can remember where when we went outside the meeting hall to take the conference photograph, our group photographer took one photo, and down the street the men in black raincoats were obviously also taking our pictures.
I engaged some of my East German friends in conversation about this–they were cynical about it, but they also said it was wearying beyond belief never to know who was spying on whom, and whom you could trust. Sometimes the guys in the black raincoats were the least of their problems; distrust ran rife through this society and it was deeply corrupting of a sense of national unity.
The Berlin Wall is gone now, but sections of it remain for visitors. I was in Berlin a while ago, and visited a section of the wall that had been preserved. It seemed so small and crumbly. Yes, the Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but one reason was that the East German society that was formed out of distrust was crumbly too–it had no real social cement to hold it together.
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself isn’t some abstract ideal that would be nice if we could get it, but really doesn’t work in practice. It is actually quite a practical notion since it’s based on the solid recognition that it’s very likely what you do to others will be done to you, so you’d better try to treat other people decently.
It’s a practical notion because as Rep. Luis Gutierrez has said, building trust with the Latino/a community is critical for law enforcement to be able to get tips on drug deals and terrorists from within the group of those most likely to know who is who, and what is what. “[W]hat is going to happen is–the eyes, the ears, that the police need so much of the community in general, so that they can combat crime, they’re going to–they’re going to cause a division between the people in the population and the police department.”
Suspect your neighbor and soon your neighbor will suspect you. Make suspicion the norm of how we treat one group of people and pretty soon that will extend beyond this one group to our country as a whole. Already we are seeing that deep distrust, and even suspicion is the way some Americans approach other Americans just because they disagree with them on certain policies. Suspicion of the government per se is rising.
This is the crumbling of the social cement we need to actually be a people. One day we could wake up and realize we have become our own worst enemies. We won’t need a Berlin Wall, or a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The wall will be between some of us and the rest of us. Finally, each of us could end up walled up from everybody else. As folks discovered in Eastern Europe, at some point you are alone behind your own wall because you don’t know whom you can really trust.