When I was a kid and I did something colossally stupid — a distressingly common event — I often tried to placate my parents by invoking some similar misdeed committed by my older brother.

This worked about as well as most excuses.

Which is to say, it didn’t work at all.

Of course that’s not my fault.

I blame my brother, who’s about 2 years older than I am.

(I didn’t even bother trying to deflect attention from my misdeeds by implicating either of my younger sisters; I was never quite that naíve.)

The problem was that my brother was far less prone to stupidity than I was — or at least to the sorts of stupidity that not even a clever teenager is apt to get away with.

And I wasn’t at all clever.

What I needed was a brother who set a bad example rather than a good one — a brother who would in effect inoculate my parents against future transgressions, much in the way that the guy in the Porsche who passes you at 110 on the freeway will trip the trooper’s radar gun and allow you to slink by at 85.

(In theory, anyway; that tactic has rarely worked for me either, as my driving record proves.)

I have been thinking just lately about the flaws inherent in trying to shift blame by way of what you might call the comparative process — or the sure-I-did-it-but-they-did-it-first approach.

What prompted my pondering is the recent debate over the Trump administration’s strict enforcement of U.S. immigration laws — and specifically the practice of detaining, in different places, parents and children who cross the border illegally.

Before Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday to revoke the policy of dividing families, it had been almost a mantra among the president’s apologists to contend that Trump officials were merely mimicking the policy of the Obama administration.

This isn’t precisely true.

Certainly children were on occasion separated from their parents after illegally crossing into the U.S. while Barack Obama was president (more later on the hypocrisy here).

But lawyers and others who frequently work with illegal immigrants say the practice was comparatively rare until recently.

What strikes me as especially interesting, though, is that contrary to the claims of many Trump acolytes, some officials in his administration have not tried to diminish the effects of their approach by contending it’s identical to that employed by their predecessors.

The Justice Department announced in April that it was enacting a “zero tolerance” policy for people who illegally cross the border. The term was not chosen, I’m sure, without consideration. Zero tolerance obviously implies that the previous policy was at least somewhat tolerant.

In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions eschewed euphemism when he said, during a visit to a section of the border in California: “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

Little wonder, then, that the number of undocumented children in federal custody rose by 21 percent during May — to 10,773 by the end of that month.

Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, was, like Sessions, uncompromising in discussing the zero tolerance policy and its effects on people who cross the border illegally.

“We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does, for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” Nielsen told the National Sheriffs’ Association during a meeting in New Orleans. “Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get-out-of-jail-free cards.”

I wonder whether the people who have tried mightily to portray Trump’s zero tolerance policy as the duplicate of Obama’s strategy recognize how feeble their argument is in light not only of data showing how many more children are in custody today, but of the Trump administration’s own unequivocal statements.

I think the practice of separating children and parents is cruel.

I also believe it is unnecessary.

Trump acknowledged as much Wednesday when he signed the executive order.

“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep families together,” he said.

Trump should have known the policy would be a public relations disaster that handed the media, who obviously need no prompting to take this administration to task, a bonanza of poignant stories that depict the president as a family-wrecking wretch.

There has been a certain amount of hypocrisy, to be sure, as editorial writers plumbed their thesauruses for synonyms of “beastly.”

“Inhumane” was a favorite of both the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The San Diego Tribune preferred “grotesque,” while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered the trifecta of “abominable,” “horrific” and “monstrous.”

Notwithstanding that families of illegal immigrants were separated much less often during the Obama administration, I would think that people who are so horrified by the tactic would have felt compelled to chastise it even when it was done less frequently.

Unless, that is, their disdain has a threshold — that it’s OK for the government to divide a certain number of families, but any more than that and the practice suddenly becomes deplorable.

In addition to this lack of consistency among the commentators, I find their shotgun approach to nasty adjectives a trifle hysterical.

There are American citizens who have committed no crimes but who live in far worse conditions than the taxpayer-supplied accommodations for the immigrants who were arrested, and their families.

The Detroit Free Press’ editorial board engaged in a different sort of exaggeration, contending that the Trump policy “is destined to take its place alongside the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and the Roosevelt administration’s internment of Japanese-Americans. . .”

As someone who regularly tries to write persuasive opinions, I understand the temptation to indulge in hyperbole to put some muscle on an argument.

But I find it demeaning to innocent victims of past government misdeeds, and frankly lazy from an historical standpoint, to compare the plight of today’s illegal immigrants, and even of their children, to the federal government rounding up American citizens solely because they had Japanese ancestry, or the Supreme Court ruling that people born in the U.S. could not be citizens because their skin was black.

The comparison is tenuous at best, and as a parallel case, as the Free Press implies, it is an abysmal failure.

But of course selective outrage is a most common variety of outrage. There has been no shortage of it during the debate over America’s enforcement of immigration laws, to be sure.

From one side we hear that the Trump policy wasn’t so terrible — and even if it was, Obama’s approach was just as bad.

From another we learn that Trump has besmirched America’s reputation not because he allowed families to be split up, but because he allowed it to happen too often.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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