WASHINGTON – Trump administration officials called it a "zero-tolerance policy." To deter Central American families from crossing into the United States illegally, the government would separate children from their parents at the southern border.
History seems to indicate, though, that it was a zero-compassion policy.
Several times in the past century, governments around the world have deemed themselves wise enough to separate families for one reason or another. And each time, children have emerged from those efforts damaged.
That would seem to indicate that many of the 2,300 or so children subject to Trump's zero-tolerance policy will have lasting scars, too – even though Trump has already reversed the policy and promised to reunite the families affected by it.
Researchers have been studying such family separations for decades, starting with a World War II-era policy that Great Britain implemented with the best of intentions.
Faring what appeared to be an imminent Nazi invasion, the British government instituted what it called "Operation Pied Piper." Nearly 3 million people, most of them children, found themselves evacuated from London and other likely Nazi bombing targets and hidden away in the supposed safety of the countryside.
But it wasn't really safe. Psychoanalyst Anna Freud later found that children who were separated from their parents were generally more traumatized than those who stayed in London and lived through the Nazi bombing blitz.
“What they observed over and over again was that the internal trauma of being sent to the calm countryside was resulting in significantly greater mental health issues and problems for these children, of various ages, than war,” Lee Jaffe, president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association, told The Washington Post in its recent look back at Operation Pied Piper.
Great Britain separated families for the noblest of reasons, but other nations have done so out of twisted ideology.
In China in the 1960s, for example, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution waged war on the nation's intellectuals by sending their young ones off to the countryside for a re-education in the ways of Maoist Marxism. Interviewing people who grew up amid the Cultural Revolution, psychiatric researchers later found evidence that some of those children suffered "separation trauma," which can lead to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a host of other psychological troubles later in life.
One of Mao's proteges, Cambodia's Pol Pot, either didn't learn anything from the Cultural Revolution's failures, or he didn't care. A decade later, in the 1970s, he, too, instituted a child separation policy, as part of a crackdown on opponents that ultimately led to more than 3 million deaths. And the child separation policy had the same effect, traumatizing the children who were removed from their parents.
All that history – and the wealth of other research that details the permanent psychological damage children can suffer when separated from their parents at a young age – raises some important questions about why the Trump administration instituted its zero-tolerance policy in the first place.
Did Trump administration officials not know that history, or what the research says?
Or did they not care?
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Story topics: The Briefing