What can a new president do to this end? The answer, which is more powerful than it may sound, is to establish a commission. True, that’s not a word for bumper stickers or rally speeches. But commissions have played a role in shifting public awareness of major issues. And compared with other, ever more siloed forms of public narrative, from cable TV to food-fight congressional hearings to anything online, they start out with less of a handicap. They are as useful a tool as we now possess for confronting complex issues without immediately being shunted into talking-point posturing. “This would be like the 9/11 Commission,” a person who has worked for presidents of both parties on emergency management told me, “about a disaster unfolding slowly before our eyes. It is a massive failure of leadership, and we’ve got to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
That’s the first investigation. The second, also conducted by a special commission, would look immediately into the cases of children separated from their parents at the border. Examples of the Trump administration acting out of smug vengefulness and casual disregard for human suffering are sadly plentiful. For years, Trump denied aid to Puerto Rico after a devastating hurricane. He only reluctantly issued disaster declarations for California (a state he viewed as politically hostile territory) during a season of unprecedented wildfires. The brutal policy of family separation stands in for every other episode of cruelty, and transcends them all. “We’ve been declared in some respects a state sponsor of child abuse by friends oversees,” John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who now is president of the Brookings Institution, told me. “Having friends and allies declare this as state-sponsored child abuse is a stain on our national soul that will take a long time to remedy.” The immediate charge to the commission would be to do everything possible to find the hundreds of displaced children and unite them with their families—which even before the election Biden promised to do. The further task would be to document, step-by-step, the process by which the president and his officials were able to put this policy of sanctioned kidnapping into place. Separating children from their parents doesn’t simply occur by executive fiat. There are bureaucratic and legal hurdles that action of this kind must surmount—and Trump’s desire surmounted all of them with ease. That demanded complicity by scores of individuals at every level, from White House aides to Justice Department lawyers to the functionaries at the border.