In 2015, a photo of a drowned Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Greece had caused an uproar in Europe, resulting in a change of policy regarding refugees. The recent photo of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in the Rio Grande as they were trying to cross to the US probably will not have the same effect on the American public opinion and policy.
The reason is that we have become systematically desensitized to the horrors of the refugee problem. It’s a slippery slope that Milgram demonstrated in his famous experiment, where participants administered gradually increasing levels of an electric shock to an innocent stranger (really a stooge), from benign 15 Volts up to deadly 450 Volts, in 15-Volt increments on the shock generator. Strapped to the wires in the next room, the victim at first protested, complaining of chest pain, but after 300 Volts he went silent, presumably dead. Two-thirds of all participants continued electrocuting him until there were no more increments on the shock generator, and the experimenter told them to stop.
The American public has passed the 300 Volt mark on the shock generator of the refugees’ issue. We have seen pictures of children who have died in US custody. We have read reports about the “torturous conditions” in which they were held. The photo of the drowned father and daughter is but a small increment on an already steep curve of outrage which we have climbed. The previous outrages haven’t made a difference in policy or in public opinion. This latest one won’t, either.
What would make a difference?
Milgram discovered two conditions when almost all participants refused to go on, rebelling against the authority. One such condition was when two experimenters disagreed, fracturing the monolith of malevolent authority in participants’ eyes. The other was when two fellow participants (stooges) refused to obey.
Expecting a sudden change in policy from Washington seems naïve at this point. But private citizens still have the power to challenge authority by expressing their disagreement with it.