Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Joe's Hotline

In Maricopa County, Arizona, everybody knows Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he of desert prison tents and pink underwear for inmates. What everybody doesn’t know is that Arpaio’s theatrics haven’t lowered our crime rate. I mention this for any Kevlar-codpiece-wearing Freepers who may be lurking. Arpaio’s all bowl and no punch.

Arpaio’s most recent installation is a hotline on which we “legals” are encouraged to report “illegals.” I haven’t done a survey, but my sense is that most people are fine with that. Phoenix is a little more than a two-hour drive from Mexico, and there’s an immigration crisis, and it’s personal here. Against that background, a hotline doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Except that it stinks.

“Why?” you ask. “Isn’t using the hotline just like reporting a crime?”

Nope. This hotline doesn’t target behavior. It targets people.

Having at one time been a closeted Queer, I know about living in the bilious glare of somebody else’s righteous paranoia. I get what it feels like to be one mistake from exile, and I know what I did to minimize the risk. I hid, I lied, I obfuscated, and if I’d had to pay taxes to be Queer, I’d have cheated. These are not behaviors we want to cultivate in anybody.

This hotline—I call it a ratline—pees in the public well. Arpaio has “deputized” regular civilians without our consent, much less an oath of allegiance or a system of accountability. We’re being asked to replace information with guesswork and facts with prejudices, heedless of the consequences.

What consequences? There’s something inherently corrosive about anonymous ratting. It eats at the fabric of society, erodes our judgment, and sabotages sensible restraints on abuse of power. If we collaborate, we are vigilantes who trade our empathy and reason for pure prey drive. We lose part of our own decency, and that’s not even counting the consequences for the people we report, of which we remain blissfully ignorant.

There’s no way to know by looking which kid is Queer, and there’s no way to know which one of us is an illegal immigrant. There’s no way to ensure that we know we’re right before we call, or to mediate punishment with mercy.

Even if there were a way to ensure that we are right, I can't bring myself to elevate mere technical law to the level of justice. There's nothing wrong with being Queer, legalities in some jurisdictions notwithstanding. And though it may be illegal, there's also nothing unjust in transgressing an arbitrary line in the sand in order to make a living, particularly when making a living is impossible at home and is invited by those who live across that line. The injustices of Mexican and North American oligarchy require challenge, and the place of integrity is beside illegal immigrants, standing over against those who deny their inalienable human rights and exploit them. Our job, at a minimum, is to ensure that the desperation they feel at home doesn't subject them to abuse and exploitation here. Either that's true or our Constitution is BS and our religious protestations are window dressing. Take your pick. The fact that it's complicated doesn't excuse us at all.

I doubt the hotline will affect the illegal immigrant count. But it will certainly stir up more fear and resentment, and take us in a direction no society ought to go. This isn’t the Third Reich—yet. Let’s not go there, all in one leap or one step at a time.