What's Tony Thinking

“Moral Injury” and Separation of Children


I am reading Francisco Cantu’s account of his time in the U.S. Border Patrol, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A writer, Cantu, worked at the border from 2008 to 2012.

As Cantu’s account of his own struggle as an agent deepens, he introduces the concept of “moral injury.” “Long confused with PTSD, moral injury is a more subtle wound, characterized not by flashbacks or a startle complex but by ‘sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness and moral confusion.'”

Cantu draws on David Wood’s (What We Have Done) studies of war and this concept of “moral injury” to understand his own profoundly disorienting experience in the Border Patrol.

Here’s Wood, a veteran war reporter, “In its most simple and profound sense, moral injury is a jagged disconnect from our understanding of who we are and what we and others ought to do and ought not to do.” As a soldier explained it, “Moral injury is . . . learning to accept things you know are wrong.” (italics added)

Linda and I are in Toronto this week. She is participating in a conference on “Accessible Yoga,” which is yoga with and for those who are in some way compromised or disabled. She works with such clients in Seattle.

Over dinner last night, friends here asked how we are managing in the time of Trump.

It occurs to me that one way to describe living in America these days (and not to diminish the trauma of those who have served in the combat, or in a para-military like the Border Patrol) is to say we are a nation suffering “moral injury.”

We are experiencing a “jagged disconnect from our understanding of who we are and what we and others ought to do and ought not to do.” We are learning to accept and live with things we know are wrong.

We did not, in the end, accept Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. That was too much. Too much of a disconnect from who we understand ourselves to be as America and Americans. Still, who knows the trauma and harm already visited on thousands of children and their families.

But there is much else we have learned to accept. Trump’s lies, his race-baiting, his degradation of public discourse and the vicious slurs he directs against anyone who triggers his ire.

There are other appalling social problems we seemingly have learned to accept, like school shootings. We are no longer shocked by them. We only await the next one. Of course, school shootings are not new to Trump’s time, but the gap between saying/ promising a lot while doing nothing has widened considerably.

Homelessness would be another social disaster we have learned to live with. Again, not something that has happened on Trump’s watch, but shaped by trends and values that have eventually yielded such a man as President.

Living in the time of Trump is to live with the daily lies and distortions. With his characterizations of the press as “America’s greatest enemy” and of reporting by mainstream outlets as “false news.”

Wood writes of moral injury that, “Most of us have a firm and deeply personal understanding of life’s moral rules, of justice and injustice, right and wrong. That sense, our inner compass, is built on beliefs we begin to acquire as infants . . . But war, by its very nature, tends to suddenly and violently upend these remaining moral beliefs.”

Cantu adds, “This upending is often a gradual process, one that is difficult to perceive. Likewise, moral injury is a wound that sets in slowly . . .” The Line Becomes a River is, in many ways, his account of his own moral injury suffered while working in an untenable situation, an undeclared war at our border.

With this President, we might say, war has come home. Trump and his enablers have created a situation of daily chaos and pervasive fear, one that is “upending moral beliefs.” They see both the world and the country as very dark and dangerous places. We are suffering “moral injury” as a people. Living with things we know are wrong.

That Trump was forced to relent on the family separation policy shows that all is not lost, that our inner moral compass as Americans is still functioning. For this we can be grateful.

Here in Canada, people seem less on edge than we are in the States. Yesterday I went out to sketch, sitting on a bench beneath a maple in the front yard of a particularly intriguing older, Victorian home.

Before long, two girls, probably 7 and 8 emerged, to see what I was up to. They were two families in the home. One family lived downstairs, the other upstairs. One of the girls was from each family.

Far from being alarmed by my presence, the kids were delighted. “Are you drawing our house?” “That’s a-maz-ing,” they said looking at my sketch. Before long, the upstairs Mom came out. Her only question was, “Do you need anything? Some water or something?” I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been doing the same in the States if the police would have been called.

They were delighted with my pen, ink and watercolor sketch. So I gave it to them. They gave me a coconut ice cream bar in return. “Would you sign it, please,” said the Mom, before I left.





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