The German theologian Martin Niemöller famously summed up how dangerous social pathologies begin incrementally before snowballing into full-blown assaults on the core of civilized societies. Recounting how Nazi doctrine tightened its grip on Germany, he observed, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.” The trade unionists and the Jews were next until finally they came for him, “and there was no on left to speak for me,” he lamented.
The subversion of laws that exist to serve the welfare of society, by those who want to undermine that society, always begins slowly. People have to become inured to the erosion of the society’s foundational principles through relentless campaigns that make the perfect the enemy of the good. The Nazi’s, in Niemöller’s homeland, did not begin by sending people to gas chambers; it took years of indoctrination to get an entire country to pretend not to notice or cow them into silence.
Historical parallels – especially those with Nazi Germany – must always be approached with extreme caution. The corrosive effects of mainstream political acquiescence to attacks on the foundational principles of civil society, however, hold true.
The virally spreading notion that laws that establish and preserve social order are inherently a tool of oppression and racism, and that the people who enforce laws are inherently agents of oppression began with assaults on our nation’s immigration laws and the men and women who enforce those laws.
The first attacks on the validity of immigration laws began some 40 years ago with the first sanctuary policies, under which local governments shielded immigration lawbreakers from federal authorities, based on the erroneous portrayal of illegal immigration being a victimless offense and the toxic assertion that enforcement of those laws is motivated by prejudice against certain racial and ethnic groups. Such policies have spread like wildfire in the past decade, with more than 500 jurisdictions, including entire states, now identifying themselves as de facto or de jure sanctuaries for illegal aliens.
The next phase in the assault on the foundational legal principle that a nation has a sovereign right to control its borders and set conditions for immigration were efforts by those on the far left to abolish ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the primary immigration enforcement agency in the interior of the country. The calls to do away with ICE quickly metastasized into invidious comparisons between immigration enforcement agents and actual Nazis. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris compared ICE to the KKK.
Rather than immediate and harsh repudiation of dangerous ideas and pernicious comparisons, these positions gained acceptance, if not outright endorsement by mainstream Democratic political figures. Two of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – joined the call for abolishing ICE. Much of the rest of the field stopped short of abolishing ICE entirely, but agreed that the agency should be prevented from enforcing immigration laws in any meaningful way, and that illegally entering the country should not be a crime.
From our current perspective in mid-2020, it is now apparent that the Abolish ICE movement was not an end in itself – a conscientious objection to the enforcement of one area of law. Rather it was a cat’s paw for an attack on the rule of law itself. Using the horrific murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer as a pretext, the increasingly emboldened anarchists and fringe identity groups upped their demands from abolishing ICE to abolishing police and decriminalizing nearly all offenses committed by those they deemed to be the oppressed against those they deemed to be oppressors.
Astonishingly, rather than a resolute line in the sand on the part of state and local officials, these demands were met with more acquiescence. In the face of rising violent crime, no less than 13 major U.S. cities have responded by slashing police budgets and manpower, or taking steps toward abolishing police entirely (even though these moves are overwhelmingly opposed by citizens, including 81 percent of African Americans). In the meantime, police in places like Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York and other cities have been relegated to onlooker status (or defenseless targets) as mobs impose their will and ideologies on residents and social institutions, with the tacit consent of appeasing politicians.
Subversion of laws and deliberate distortion of their intent begets more subversion of laws and distortion of their intent. The assault on our status as a “nation of laws” may have begun with immigration laws, and the nation’s elite did not speak out because the harm that was caused did not directly affect them. Now other laws are being subverted that do affect the elites – the people who live in places like Manhattan’s Upper Westside, or Seattle’s pricey Capitol Hill neighborhood – and there may be no one left to speak for them.
Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).