Thoughts on the President’s Wall Speech: II

Part Two:
A Practical Critique of a Speech

Overall, the president’s speech is a sturdy piece of rhetoric, at the center of which — as at the center of our current government shutdown — is a wall. Presumably, his speech is intended as an argument in favor of this wall. This is not to suggest that the speech was nothing other than a pitch for the Wall Plan. I don’t wish to exclude other motivations.

The president begins by explaining that America is in the midst of a double-edged humanitarian crisis. On the one side, we have the tragedy of family separations, the overcrowded camps at the border, and the burden of treating asylum seekers in a way that is consistent with the dignity they deserve as human beings when their sheer numbers threaten to preclude such treatment. America, the president suggests, is failing at its humanitarian responsibilities and we need to act.

The other edge of this humanitarian crisis is the crimes being perpetrated against American citizens by non-Americans within our borders. Some may take umbrage with the president’s forging of these two issues into a solid piece, but we should at least keep in mind that the two problems are not completely unrelated and that, of course, the blade of a single sword may be blunter on one edge than the other, and that any skilled swordsmen man invert his grip at will.

For clarity I’ll refer to the first set of problems (overcrowding, family separation, etc) as the Border Problem, and the second set of problems (crimes committed by non-Americans) as the Internal Problem.

Given the dual nature of the crisis, we should presume that the president intends the Wall Plan as a solution to both the Border Problem and the Internal Problem. As to the Border Problem, the president, at least to my understanding, didn’t make explicit exactly how a wall is intended to solve this subset of problems.

Nevertheless, I assume that the president does in fact intend the Wall Plan as a solution to the Border Problem. Given other things he has said in other contexts, my hunch is that he thinks the wall (working, let’s presume, with other reforms) will solve the problem inasmuch as it will deter people from attempting the migration in the first place. As he doesn’t state this argument explicitly in his speech, it would be unfair to criticize him for not offering with it his reason for believing a wall might function as a deterrent. One wonders, nevertheless, does he have a reason at all for believing this? And if so could it possibly be consistent with a considered theory of human behavior, reason, and desire?

In his speech the president himself makes the strongest argument against the idea that a wall, or any impediment, could be strong enough to deter prospective asylum seekers. On the trip to America, he says,

“children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico.”

It is reasonable to assume that asylum seekers begin their arduous journey to America in full cognizance of these dangers the president mentions — and not merely these dangers only. If many asylum seekers are fleeing terrible conditions at home, then the perils abroad may be worth any sacrifice. This chance — the opportunity to try — is intrinsically valuable. Thus if these dangers that the president lists — kidnapping, death, sexual assault — aren’t enough to deter asylum seeker, why should the threat of having to scale, or burrow under, or tear through a wall deter them? Or given its impenetrability, why should the threat of having to accoast a long wall to a border checkpoint, having to give oneself over to the Kafkaesque horrors of institutionalization, long lines and longer paperwork, cots and Red Cross meals, why should this be worse than the threat of summary execution at the hands of a drug lord or a dictator? Why should even the paltry threat of being turned away deter them? Why should even the possibility of failure?

Americans, in all that we’ve ever undertaken, have never been deterred by the threat of failure. (The current President himself is a stunning example of this fact.) We should assume as much is true of people hailing from elsewhere.

I began Part One of this essay with a statement of what I called the Bipartisan Goal. As the Border Problem doesn’t appear to fall under the domain of the Bipartisan Goal, it seems to me that a second statement is required, a second Bipartisan Goal. My intuition is that The Border Problem is a problem whose goal can be stated in bipartisan terms. Such a statement will not be attempted here.

The Internal Problem, on the other hand,  is simply the statement of the conditions leading to the formation of the Bipartisan Goal. The president states that over the last two years there have been 266,000 arrests of non-American criminals. Assuming all of these criminals gained access to America from unsecured portions of our border that a wall would have made inaccessible, this is a strong argument in favor of the Wall Plan. The president doesn’t state explicitly that each of these 266,000 criminals made such crossings. And thus it is still unclear whether the Wall Plan is the best plan or even a worthwhile plan.

Furthermore somewhat detracting from the president’s argument for the Wall Plan is the section from the first few minutes of his speech:

“The proposal from homeland security includes cutting edge technology for detecting drugs, weapons, illegal contraband and many other things. We have requested more agents, immigration judges to process the sharp rise of unlawful migration . . . .¹ ”

This seems inconsistent with the claim (not made, to be fair) that all 266,000 criminals could have been prevented from entering the country by means of a wall. It suggests that at least some of these criminals are still passing through with contraband at secured checkpoints. We might assume border patrol would not need new technology or more agents otherwise. And furthermore, we might ask, why isn’t this first set of proposals sufficient?

A precise breakdown of statistics and costs is necessary to answer the first two of the three questions posed in Part One of this essay. In reference to the second question — that is, the questions concerning financial burdens — the president does says a few things in his speech.

The wall, he says, “would very quickly pay for itself.”

“The cost (he continues) of illegal drugs each year exceeds $500 billion a year. Vastly more than the $5.7 billion we have requested from Congress. The wall will also be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal we have with Mexico.”

Here the president offers two proposals: reduction in “costs” related to illegal drugs and “indirect” funding through a trade deal.

As to the first proposal, presumably this “cost” refers to law enforcement budgets. It seems to me precipitous to cut funding to law enforcement agencies in expectation of reduced expenses. To funnel that money elsewhere before we’re certain that the agencies won’t need that extra $5.7 billion is rash, at the least. If the wall does nothing to prevent drug crime or has the reverse effect of increasing it, then law enforcement may find itself under-funded.

Presumably though this proposed reduction to law enforcement budgets is intended to happen in the future, after the wall has been paid for and built. Thus it poses a gamble. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine our various law enforcement agencies, with their total $500 billion budget, willing to part with even $5.7 billion of it. My impression is that, generally, when money is allocated to various agencies, they take what they can get — which is never enough — and when one expense has been removed they continue to need that now freed money for other projects that have gone long under-funded. I can’t imagine that law enforcement agencies are any different than households in this manner: parting with a much needed source of funding isn’t something they will brook lightly.

If the president is willing to guarantee a reduction in law enforcement funding, he may be gambling dangerously with the already precarious safety of our country. This is especially so, given that in the past we’ve seen unexpected increases in drug related crime after the implementation of large-scale efforts to reduce it. If the wall creates impediments to drug trafficking, then those in this country who desire drugs will have a harder time acquiring them, and thus the relative scarcity — not effecting demand — will send up the cost — if not inviting more sellers into the market, then at least encouraging those already selling to take more desperate and criminal means to secure success. Risk keeps pace with reward, and reward keeps pace with scarcity wherever demand is inviolable. Meanwhile, with demand for the contraband not abating and cost rising, those who need the contraband may be driven to more desperate means to acquire funds — thus leading to more crime and more expenses for law enforcement.

Accordingly, we may find ourselves, because of the wall, in a situation worse than the one the wall was meant to solve — and with under-funded law enforcement agencies to boot.

As to the president’s second argument — that a trade deal will also help “indirectly” pay for the wall — a certain vagueness prevents the argument from being truly persuasive. One thing seems sure: that unlike the de-funding of law enforcement agencies, this plan seems less capable of a secure, upfront source of funding. Rather it seems left up to the vicissitudes of the market. This is perhaps not nearly so baselessly hopeful as when I say my scratch-off lotto ticket will pay for itself. But one never knows.

This (so far as I can tell) exhausts the sum of the president’s speech’s arguments for the Wall Plan. Yet I don’t want to pass over two additional parts of his speech, as they seem to me very troubling.

Towards the end of his speech the president offers a list of atrocities — crimes committed against Americans at the hands of “illegal aliens.”² What is offensive about the president’s remembering these crimes in this context isn’t so much that he might be exploiting tragedy in the service of persuasion, nor that he may be exploiting our emotions, our anger, and our thirst for justice in that same service. Rather what’s offensive is the suggestion that anyone who isn’t already decided in favor of a wall, or anyone already decided against a wall, doesn’t feel the anger, the craving for justice, the need to act to prevent future crimes. It suggests even that those who disagree with the president are somehow complicit.

But in fact the repetition of these sad stories is mere preaching to the choir. All of this supports the Bipartisan Goal. And none of it, as it stands, is an argument in favor of the Wall Plan. The missing piece in the argument is an account by which these atrocities are shown to be impossible given the existence of a wall. The president’s task was to supply this piece. He did not supply it.

This appeal to our emotions takes us back to where we began. Something needs to be done. Upon that much we all agree. But what?

The second and most disappointing part of the president’s speech is what I fear is the real purpose of the speech: his attacks upon his opponents. My impression is that the purpose of his speech was not to convince anyone of anything concerning the wall, but to try to set public opinion against the democrats who oppose him and to saddle upon them all the blame for the current government shutdown.

Good taste would have dictated straying as far as possible from this subject (that is, the recalcitrance/stubbornness/dedication — call it what you will — of his political opponents, and – much the greater anathema — any and all stiff-fingered ascriptions of blame). I have a hard time phrasing the “why” of this. There are certain background behaviors and attitudes concerning fairness and respect that, being taken for granted, are difficult to defend when challenged. We’re seldom called upon to state our reasons for being fair, kind, forgiving, patient, etc. In the past people in western countries might have replied, “Because of the Sermon on the Mount,” or something like that, and this was enough regardless of what god or gods the other person worshiped, regardless of their worshiping any at all. This was because, I imagine, the challenger — like all of us — had his or her own inadequate answers to impertinent questions, and tables turn so easily. There is a “why” that can stab like a knife into anything, and doesn’t stop until it hits the bone of a satisfying answer. Values, being boneless or at least bird-boned, can’t take the weight of armor and thus have to deck themselves out in all sorts of decoys — like the aforementioned — and when they come up against that blade, rarely survive. This “why,” like any weapon, ought to be wielded responsibly and seek only worthy targets, and not necessarily always to kill, but rather always to protect. . .

. . . which echoes, incidentally, the closing words of the president’s speech. They have some baring, I believe, upon the third question I posed in Part One: Can the wall be built in a way that is non-disruptive to local ecosystems?

“When I took the oath of office, I swore to protect our country and that is what I will always do so help me god.”

I wonder, how far does this oath extend? That is, into what domains? To preserve the integrity of our constitution — America’s special structure, its quirky and cumbersome shape, with its checks and balances, its daily deliveries, and its awkward but necessary augmentations — we can be sure. And, I think, uncontroversially, the president’s oath extends to protect the American people, citizens if not residents. We ourselves are as much the country as the constitution. But what about the other sense of “country” — America as a literal land, the America that is our resources, our flora and fauna, our lakes and rivers, our parks, and all the country’s natural beauty?

I would hope that any American president’s oath extends equally into these three domains: the institutional, the social, and the natural. There may be times when tough decisions must be made to risk one to preserve the other, as, for instance, when American citizens sacrifice their lives to protect the formal and abstract, forged in brain, tempered in fire, traced transiently in ink on parchment but preserved eternally in liquid more precious upon the scroll of human history — for however long that’s to last.

Having to balance these three domains is no light task. Again I ask, how far does the president’s oath extend? Into all three, I’m sure. But I wonder, must his commitment be coextensive?


¹  “. . . fueled by our very strong economy.” Huzzah!
²  What bothers me, incidentally, about this phrase “illegal alien” is that it is illogical. *Illegal alien, I should write. Consider: contraband can be illegal (e.g. illegal drugs, illegal firearms), certain activities can be illegal (e.g. illegal soliciting, illegal practice of medicine), but people are, properly speaking, not the sort of thing you can qualify as illegal (e.g. *an illegal Mexican, *an illegal Muslim). When people stop using words correctly, anything — even the worst — becomes possible.

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