Alexandra Petri: Appropriate ways of describing what is happening at the border

This Wednesday, May 22, 2019, photo shows a World War II-era bomber hanger in Deming, N.M. A surge of asylum-seeking families has been straining cities along the southern U.S. border for months, but now the issue is flowing into cities far from Mexico, where immigrants are being housed in an airplane hangar and rodeo fairgrounds and local authorities are struggling to keep up with the influx. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

We know absolutely and clearly what is not happening at the border and the words we must not use to describe it.

Three people have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since April. The children who have been separated from their parents are still reeling from the consequences. But it is nothing, if you see what we are saying, like the worst thing that could possibly have happened, and those who suggest this are wrong. It is horrible, but it is not an Unthinkable Horror. It is — thinkable, I think. It must be thinkable.

What should make us most upset, right now, is those disrespectful enough to suggest that what is happening is in any way similar to the tragedies of the past. This is not to be compared to concentration camps or the atrocities of the Holocaust, except to say that this is not anything like that. If we were to compare the two, we might discover similarities.

It is important to be precise with the language used to describe such places and such things.

For example, the things the children were kept in were Not Cages. The administration was very strong on that point. Whatever the thing was that the children separated from their parents were kept in, it was not a cage, so we can sleep at night, and our consciences are clear. It was not so bad. Keep to the words!

The words will help you see when you are going really wrong. A man is not providing water and succor for people walking thirstily through the desert; he is doing a crime, human smuggling. It is good that we have these words to make it clear that providing shelter and comfort to people in need is a crime, whereas letting them perish is — well, is not unthinkable. It is nothing like the never-to-be-repeated past. It is merely something that is occurring in the present, when we are busy.

The problem is the people who are using the wrong words to describe what this is. It is very important to use the right words. People must not use hyperbole, or the notion will get out that people could come Here, the United States, and die alone and frightened. You see, this is Here, where such things cannot happen.

And the words from the past are too enormous. To use these words in the present is to imply that we would not know, instantly, if something historically awful were taking place right now. If something truly monstrous were happening, it would be unmissable. It would not be the sort of thing we could possibly choose not to think about. People would not be marrying and giving in marriage and going about their lives in the ordinary way.

No, unique historical monstrosities come clearly labeled. When things happen that ought never to happen, the kind of thing you ought to stop, an alert comes to your phone, and your other plans are canceled. You are asked to be courageous — but not to be inconvenienced! And no one yells at you except the obviously misguided. It is quite something.

People are always saying vaguely risible things, shouting that this is the thing, the thing that we feared would happen — but they are always saying that about something. Everything cannot be the Great Emergency. In the course of a day you must walk past many small emergencies, but you console yourself with the knowledge that if the big one ever came, you would know.

We would know if this were the time to do something. We would know because if someone were to compare it to the Holocaust, everyone would agree, at once, that this was correct. We would rise, as one, to stop it. That is why language matters so much. That is why we must be so clear about what is not happening at the border. What is not happening is anything unthinkable or unrepeatable. We must be very careful with the words!

If we do not use the right words for this, we might think that something terrible was happening.

Alexandra Petri | The Washington Post

Alexandra Petri is a Washington Post columnist offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.”