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Column: The crying child Rorschach

Posted: June 25, 2018 4:03 p.m.
Updated: June 26, 2018 1:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Is there a psychiatrist in the house?

Like so many Americans, this columnist longs for the voice of another, the great and good Charles Krauthammer, who died last week, leaving us mortals to plod through the darkness without the light of his reasoned guidance.

A revered Washington Post colleague, Krauthammer was a psychiatrist as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, a rare embodiment of exquisite logic and philosophical insight, as well as a wordsmith of enviable skill. Although I penned my tribute to the man while he was still living, he inevitably came to mind as I perused the morning mail and wondered about the extreme disconnect between how people have viewed the border crisis these past few weeks.

Though he never played the psychiatrist card, Krauthammer surely must have taken into account the psychological dimensions and ramifications of a given issue. It would be nearly remiss not to, given today’s ever-more partisan and tribal ways.

To wit: The crying child.

Most have seen the photo of a 2-year-old child sobbing as her mother is being patted down by a Border Patrol agent. This image, which would touch anyone’s heart, became an instant viral “infestation,” to borrow the president’s term for the migrant flow, and it quickly shifted the border debate from one of urgency to near hysteria. Let’s just say coifs are aflame.

For Democrats, the quintessential photo provided the ultimate bunker buster for the mid-term battles ahead. For Republicans, it was merely further evidence of the Fake News empire striking, yet again. The profanely unwise Ann Coulter even suggested that such children were actors trained by liberals.

Next came Time magazine’s newest cover, a powerful illustration showing the tiny tot standing alone before a looming President Trump, with the caption: “Welcome to America.” During the small window between the photo’s global debut and the Time cover, fresh information surfaced clarifying that the child, though clearly upset, was not ultimately separated from her mother, as many would have inferred. You could practically hear the “Yahoos!” from the Oval Office to the Fox News headquarters.

For the rest of the world, the image remains iconic and understood as what was intended, presumably by the photographer, and surely by Time -- a human symbol of a terrible policy gone awry. The fact that this little girl wasn’t taken away from her mother -- hallelujah -- doesn’t erase all the others who have been separated, nor does it alter the reality of suffering imposed on so many migrant families.

It does remind us, in the case of the photograph, that captions should be as complete as possible. Pictures are more powerful than a thousand words, to be sure, but journalism standards require as much accompanying information as we can get. In the viral social media world, this doesn’t always happen.

As for Time, an illustration, like a cartoon, isn’t meant to be taken literally. It is, after all, a figurative representation. Whatever the fallout, the photo served a noble purpose in helping organize people’s outrage, no doubt leading Trump to issue an executive order Wednesday to end the separation abuse. Unfortunately, the image of this poor, innocent child will be used by both sides to advance political purposes.

Meanwhile, 2,300 children already have been separated and housed, who-knows-where? In at least some cases, officialdom hasn’t a clue. This should be appalling to anyone with a heartbeat, but guess what? It isn’t.

The disconnect mentioned earlier is confirmed both by my mailbag and by recent polling that shows up to 58 percent of Republicans supported the separation policy, while two-thirds of Americans overall did not. This data is reflected in letters from which two clear perspectives emerge: One, the crying child is an obvious metaphor for a terrible policy; two, this particular child was not separated from her mother and, therefore, everything else reported from the border can be dismissed as liberal/Marxist propaganda.

As a charitable concession commensurate with the moment, let’s assume that anyone can entertain the following two thoughts at once: It is possible to both honor the law and other people’s basic human rights.

Yes, of course, the migrating parents are responsible for bringing their young children to the border without documentation, but theirs is a sin born mostly of desperation; ours is a sin of volition, lacking even ordinary logic or a philosophy of compassion, both of which are today in scarcer supply with the departure of one Dr. Krauthammer.

Oh, dear Charles, to read your mind.

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