When Silence is Loud as Hell

At the Southern Border, journalists are giving voices to the voiceless.

In this newsletter, we talk about free speech. It’s a fundamental right, as outlined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“… Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

I will be away this week, so in lieu of this upcoming Tuesday’s newsletter, I want to talk about the absence of speech; those with stories they themselves cannot tell. As I sit in my comfortable apartment in Washington, D.C., prepared to enjoy a weeklong vacation with family, I am shaken by the idea of writing anything at all without first addressing the humanitarian crisis in which children are suffering in camps at the United States’ southern border.

With Caitlin Dickerson’s revelatory reporting for The New York Times in recent weeks, particularly her June 21st report, “‘There is a Stench’: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center,” the national outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation and detention policies for minors has reached a fever pitch. But, it feels more like a fever dream… or a national nightmare.

Journalism gets a bad rap sometimes. Onlookers rightly nitpick inaccuracies, the president wrongfully bashes us online, and we don’t do a great job at explaining what we do and how we come to report the best and mostly timely information we have.

But, these children can’t speak to the world by themselves. And through the work of journalists, as well as advocates and immigration attorneys and doctors working on the children’s behalf, pardon the cliché, we start to grant voices to the voiceless.

Recently, we’ve learned the uncomfortable but necessary truth. That children are being denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap. They have the flu. They have lice. They’re taking care of one another without parents present. At least seven migrant children have died in U.S. custody since last year.

Whatever the “crisis at the border” once meant to you, this is its own crisis at the border.

Elsewhere, the Mexican Associated Press photojournalist Julia Le Duc took a harrowing photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter Valeria… lying face-down, drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande. They were just looking for a brighter future.

(I think it’s graphic but necessary to view… and you can do so here. )

Reminiscent of Nick Ut’s “The Terror of War” photograph from Vietnam in 1972, which showed the world a young girl running, naked because her clothes were burned off of her body by napalm, Le Duc’s photo should shock us with the truth of what’s really going on: that well-to-do adults have erred so grievously that the most desperate among us, including children, are the ones suffering.

Irrespective of whose fault it is or what the exact right border policy should be, we can all agree that Óscar Alberto and his daughter Valeria should not be dead in a river. Journalism isn’t always prescriptive, nor should it necessarily be, but a photograph or a newspaper report can raise the flag that sometimes there’s just something unspeakably wrong transpiring.

The story of “Napalm GirlKim Phuc, the story of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, the story of two-year-old Valeria, and the stories of the hungry, lonely, scared, lice-invested, separated children at the border have been told by others. In addition to the accountability these journalists are demanding through their work, they provide an important public service in telling the stories of children who cannot speak for themselves.

Sometimes the absence of speech is the loudest thing in the room. Because we know the screams and cries and the growls of stomachs are mounting even without camera crews or radio mics on site.