It isn’t often I quote Breitbart as a source, but this time I wanted to nail the source.
Notice the piercing, violent metaphor of steel hitting steel into wood. I’ll come back to that.
So, here’s the quote, straight from the mouth of President Donald Trump, speaking to one of his base rallies in Montana recently, reported on the Breitbart website.
“I noticed all that beautiful barbed wire going up today,” Trump said, referring to military soldiers setting up fences on the border. “Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.”
We have become used to rhetoric aimed at the lowest common denominator of moral discourse.
There is nothing new in Trump using grotesque metaphors, inflammatory humor and the recurrent mockery of truth as his specialty party piece.
But his words of eulogy on the virtues of barbed wire demonstrate culpable historical ignorance, dangerous cultural illiteracy and ethical irresponsibility, and this in someone obliged by office to embody the moral and political leadership of an entire people.
And not just any people. A vast, diverse, powerfully resourced nation now more polarized than any time in living memory.
Let me deconstruct the president’s sentimental attachment to barbed wire.
I begin with acknowledging the historical significance of this week. We remember the tragedy, indeed the millions of tragedies, which took place over the four-and-a-half years of World War I.
Among the most lethal and terrible inventions deployed in modern warfare is barbed wire.
It is, and is meant to be, an instrument that injures, tears and pierces. Beautiful it is not.
Unless of course you are behind a machine gun in World War I, and all that beautiful barbed wire holds up other human beings who happen to be the enemy making them easier to kill.
Thirty years later, electrified barbed wire elevated the usefulness of barbed wire and enhanced its beauty as a weapon to a quite new level.
Auschwitz provided a prototype for concentration camps where death would come to those trying to escape by climbing over or trying to cut through barbed wire.
Beautiful it is not. Unless your goal is to herd human beings, do them harm and make that harm fatal by the imaginative genius of electrified wire twisted to sharpness that pierces, tears and ensnares.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the hell of the gulags and, in his exile, educated Western democracies in the realities of political oppression and the brutalizing of human beings.
The imaginative-ideas factory that is the dictator’s mindset, aims primarily for power over – rather than power in the service of – the people.
And one of the more effective instruments for power over is to make someone physically captive.
For that, barbed wire is good, you might almost say, it is beautifully fitted to purpose.
For weeks now, the Trump administration has racked up the threat posed by a caravan of refugees traveling from Honduras, through Mexico toward the United States border.
Among the measures to be taken to prevent a mass rush on the border is the deployment of barbed wire.
Desperate people who have nowhere to stay, no means of support and who by internationally recognized criteria are refugees will find themselves confronted by a barrier whose primary purpose is to deter by the certainty of injury and torn human flesh.
“Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.” Loud applause and cheering from the crowd at the rally.
Why? Because Trump has once again manufactured the specter of fear, then shown how as a strong man he can keep them safe, though it means using force against others who are precisely the ones being depicted as a threat to be feared.
Create a bogeyman, stir the fear and anger, talk big about being the great deliverer and use that as an excuse to further demonize and brutalize others. It’s the classic tactic of the fascist.
Madeleine Albright’s recent book, “Fascism: A Warning,” evidences that time after time.
But here’s the thing: Trump’s words expose the danger he himself poses to the American people. “Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.” Did an American president actually say that?
Words that are the cry of the powerful, bent on the subjugation of the vulnerable through actions that despise their weakness and degrade their humanity. Is that what America now is? Really?
Beautiful barbed wire is a moral oxymoron betraying the aesthetic nihilism of the powerful.
From the native American peoples whose free-ranging way of life was destroyed by guns and, yes, barbed wire; to the soldiers on both sides who were crucified on endless coils of barbed wire during the maelstrom of World War I; to the millions of Jewish people herded and murdered in killing factories within walls made of barbed wire; to the gulags of Russia, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Berlin Wall, the concentration camps in Bosnia, the one common factor was the deployment of barbed wire as deterrent and instrument of laceration of human flesh.
I said at the start of this post, I wanted to nail my source for the quote and emphasized my deliberate use of that metaphor of violent striking of steel into wood. I am a Christian.
At the center of Christian faith is steel tearing into human flesh, military power using steel as deterrent, weapon and instrument of pain or death. Barbed wire is ugly, never beautiful.
In conception and reality, it is a weapon. And it has been used repeatedly as a weapon of oppression, a militarized threat of laceration for those who do not comply with the orders of those who own the wire.
Immigration is a global challenge. It is also a global reality that will not go away. But behind the labels of immigrant, refugee, asylum-seeker, there are human beings, people of flesh and blood.
The use of barbed wire as metaphor and weapon, to threaten the lives and the flesh of other human beings is not something that a Christian can ever view with moral neutrality.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.” Barbed wire used against flesh is for me a blasphemy, a refusal to see that of God in the other person.
I have no difficulty whatsoever answering the question, “What side of the barbed wire would Jesus choose to stand?”
Because Jesus is walking with the refugees in that caravan. He knows about barbed wire, steel through flesh, and the long trek from bloody Bethlehem to the safety of Egypt.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.