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Debate over family separations escalates to dangerous extremes, experts say

U.S. Border Patrol agents watch as they take photos and video of the crowd protesting outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

Heartbreaking images of children being taken away from their parents as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border have inspired impassioned outcries against President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 immigrant children from their families since May.

Immigration has always been one of the most politically polarizing and emotional policy issues. The discussion of family separations has veered to extremes that experts say could be dangerous.

Academy Award-winning actor Peter Fonda made the policy personal in a series of tweets Wednesday, one of which suggested President Trump's 12-year-old son, Barron should be ripped from his mother's arms and put "in a cage with pedophiles."

After public backlash, Fonda issued an apology for his "highly inappropriate and vulgar" tweet about the president and his family. In a statement released by his manager and publicist, the actor stated, "Like many Americans, I am very impassioned and distraught over the situation with children separated from their families at the border, but I went way too far."

According to her spokesperson, First Lady Melania Trump informed the Secret Service about the threat which received 1,500 likes and was retweeted more than 500 times before it was taken down.

Fonda, an actor and liberal activist, did not limit his outrage to the first family. Amid calls for a massive turnout at upcoming national immigration protests later this month, he suggested targeting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and their families in a series of tweets that have also been deleted.

"We should hack this system, get the addresses of the ICE agents CBP agents and surround their homes in protest. We should find out what schools their children go to and surround the schools in protest. These agents are doing this cuz they want to do it. They like doing this," Fonda wrote in capital letters.

He clarified his message in a follow-up tweet, stating, "We don't need to take the agents kids, we only need to surround their schools and scare the s*** out of them."

The Secret Service and law enforcement agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are trained to take these threats seriously.

Daryl Johnson, a former DHS domestic terrorism analyst and founder of DT Analytics, said the threats should be considered credible and warned they could inspire individuals to take extreme actions.

"Calling for protest is one thing, but calling for people to go and identify law enforcement agents with the intent to try to harass and intimidate them, it's reckless," he said of the tweets.

Being a celebrity figure elevates the profile of such a call to action which could inspire individuals who are already on the fringes to take serious, potentially criminal or violent action, Johnson advised.

"There's always someone who's looking for a way to get involved and go a step further than protesting. So they have got to remember, when you make that type of call, people may heed it and take it further than what you planned," he explained.

Others suggest violent or threatening rhetoric, particularly when it comes from the left-wing activists, rarely materializes in violent extremist acts.

"There's been a lot of talk and very little action in the leftwing movement over time," said Dr. Jennifer Varriale Carson, a criminology professor at the University of Central Missouri. According to studies and FBI statistics, extremist violence in the United States is most prevalent among far-right groups.

That's not to say individuals on the far left will not be violent, she clarified.

Carson noted that leftist extremism had been dissipating over time until the more recent resurgence of Anti-Fa, or Anti-Fascist movement.

In the United States, Anti-Fa has become more prominent on the fringes of the anti-Trump #Resistence movement and took part in violent clashes with far-right activists. Followers typically believe violence is justified when used to stop fascism.

When Peter Fonda made his appeal on Twitter, the discussion of family separations had escalated to the point where prominent public figures were comparing the Trump administration's policies to Nazi Germany.

Over the weekend, former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted an image of the Auschwitz concentration camp, writing, "Other governments have separated mothers and children."

Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, compared detention centers at the border to "a concentration camp for kids" during a Friday interview on MSNBC. He warned, "The American people need to wake up and pay attention because your kids could be next."

Members of the Trump administration including ICE Director Thomas Homan and Attorney General Jeff Sessions denounced the comparisons as insulting and exaggerated.

The comparisons are typical of the political and media environment where claims about political opponents are more common, Johnson noted. "But it comes with consequences."

He continued, "People can hear that and say it's coming from a credible source and act on it in a way that was not intended." That was the case with the right-wing extremists who were agitated and mobilized around President Trump's calls for a travel ban or his statements about immigrants, Johnson added.

Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse sees a different kind of threat arising from the public discussion of immigration and family separations.

Increasingly since the 2016 election "we have watched a dramatic degradation of two of the most core values in a democracy: civility and respect," she said. "We've seen those eroded at a pace that is actually quite shocking."

In a 2018 survey on civility in politics, Weber Shandwick found 93 percent of the public believes the country has a civility problem and an overwhelming majority believe it has gotten worse in recent years.

The study suggested that the inability to address politics in a reasonable, civil way could pose a threat to democracy. Almost unanimously, 96 percent of respondents attested to the importance of civility for a democracy.

Disrespect is being "legitimized" across the political spectrum, Lukensmeyer said. She pointed to the language used by leaders in Congress, public figures and notably President Trump, who casually insults political opponents and encouraged using physical force to remove protesters from his 2016 campaign rallies.

"There are two tragedies we are now witnessing," Lukensmeyer explained. "The tragedy of what's happening to families at the border and the tragedy of how far our social cohesion has degraded that people, in responding to this situation, are also behaving in an inhumane way not worthy of our democratic ideals."



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