Which is worse, cruelty or stupidity? It’s a close call down on the border where we are punishing children for crossing the border illegally. Amidst all the reports of children crammed into standing room-only cells without a place to lie down at night, with no showers and not a toothbrush, it’s easy to overlook how manifestly stupid this treatment is on its own terms.

The thinking, if there is any, behind the organized abuse of these children is an old one: If you hurt someone who has violated your laws badly enough, others will be deterred.

As if.

As if the crass stupidity that goes by the recycled name “Zero Tolerance” will work here and now after centuries of experiments with fear as a means of controlling behavior. For those of us who have forgotten the failures of deterrence, the inability of the Roman Empire to intimidate believers in Jesus with grisly executions, the failure of the Catholics to scare off Protestant beliefs by torture, the ineffectiveness of the Berlin Wall, perhaps more recent American experiences with drug policy can remind us of the stupidity of using fear as a means of social control.

In the 1970s, an ambitious set of politicians reacted to the public’s fear of crime and drugs with variations of “Zero Tolerance” policies that focused on heavy punishment for non-violent, first time offenders in hopes of intimidating potential users. 

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a “moderate” Republican, pushed for 15-year mandatory minimum jail terms with no parole or probation for possession of two ounces of cocaine, heroin and cannabis in hopes of burnishing his image as a general in the War on Drugs. He was not alone.

Zero Tolerance sent 150,000 nonviolent New York offenders to jail before the law was moderated, and 10 years later the state’s prisons held almost twice as many drug offenders — 19,164, predominantly black people — than the entire system held for all offenses in 1972, about 10,000. Neither crime rates nor drug use fell.

So here we are again, another fear-fomenting administration advocating for Zero Tolerance on the border in the hope that families fleeing starvation, criminal exploitation and rape will abandon their cases for asylum or hopes of a better life lest they be separated from their children and see their little ones placed in what amounts to cages that no zoo would permit.

Of course, the observed abuse of children, untreated for illness in quarantine cells, sleeping on floors, unable to get water, a toothbrush or blankets, will be and is being denied. Who do you believe? Border agents who supported a Facebook site, “I’m 10-15” that teems with fantasies of violence against immigrants, or journalists and some insiders who back up the claims of abuse?

The Facebook site “I’m 10-15” is named for the radio code talk for a border agent with an immigrant in custody. That page with its 10,000 or so users and another called Real CBP Nation feature jokes about immigrant deaths and images of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being violently abused sexually. Immigrants are referred to as “tonks,” the sound a billy club makes contacting a human skull with force.

Zero Tolerance is failing us at the border morally and practically, even though it may be succeeding politically with a certain electoral base in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon rallied the public against blacks, hippies and others associated in the public mind with drug use.

If we are to be a great nation, not just a powerful empire, we need to start at our border with humanity and respect, not fear and violence.

Mick Ireland is descended from immigrants who arrived before people were classified as “illegal.” Comments welcome at