President Tough Guy Readies Rifles to Face Kids With Rocks: Esequiel Hernandez and The Perils of a Militarized Border

So, our President – a barely human mixture of evil, ignorance and cruelty – has now issued his instructions for the troops being sent to our southern borders to meet the sinister immigrants he is using to mobilize his xenophobic supporters.

What sayeth our master of military strategy? Rocks are to be considered firearms and met with appropriate force. And while it is unclear if these are actually the rules of engagement given out by military leaders, his statement does send a confusing and completely unhinged signal to troops entering such a fraught situation.

If this “rifles against rocks” strategy  is something you find acceptable, you can stop reading here and switch to a site more comfortable with the perverse idea that deadly force makes perfect sense in the epic battle between privilege and human suffering.

But if the thought of armed troops in battle against rock-throwing children makes you sick to your stomach, stop whatever you are doing and see Kieran Fitzgerald’s shattering and cautionary film The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez. Released in 2007 and originally broadcast on POV, PBS’s premier showcase for award-winning documentaries for 30 years, the film details the 1997 killing by US troops of an 18-year old US citizen herding his sheep near the border.

My point? All manner of tragedy is possible when the lethal tools of excessive force are locked and loaded and under the direction of a maniacal, narcissistic commander in chief who actually seems to enjoy terrorizing the desperate, the hungry, the homeless.

Mr. Tough Guy. Pathetic. Despicable.

Now All I Feel is Rage: “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” Pt. 2


A few weeks ago I tried to describe the emotional impact of Kieran Fitzgerald’s “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez.” It’s been a long time since a documentary left me so incapacitated by grief. The first time was in the midst of violent anti-war protests against the Viet Nam war, in a room full of cynical boomers at the UCLA Film School, as we watched Albert and David Maysles’s “Salesman” and were reduced to sobbing.

“The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” is a superb example of a documentary that shrewdly reaches for the pain without pouring on the polemics. Only after delivering a blow to the heart does that pain slowly make way for rage about the larger social context in which Esequiel was killed.

Rage? That’s right. I’m no longer paralyzed.

Watching “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” brought to mind every example of pathetically misguided criminal justice policies that have been adopted exclusively as public theatre, remedies designed to create elegant yet completely phony illusions of action.

Oh, I know that these “solutions” are sold to the public as the latest and greatest answers to public anxiety. And I know that a scared public is vulnerable to quickly adopting almost anything that looks tough.

It’s just that these “solutions” are so often scams, quick and dirty fixes proposed by some politician who knows that a politically successful policy will always trump an effective one.

And do we come up with some good ones! A mandatory sentencing law takes discretion away from judges, young men and women are imprisoned for life because they are present during a homicide someone else committed, the merchants of toughness continue the absurd and oxymoronic hunt for a fair and humane death penalty, boot camps open that are nothing more than modern chain gangs, and US Marines are deployed to the border to watch for drugs. Everyone is thrilled. Whoopee.

Mission accomplished. Society has drawn a line in the sand. Aren’t we the tough guys?

Which would be just hunky-dory if not for the fact that virtually no one is any safer. And even worse, as we revel in our new feelings of “security,” we completely miss all the ways that our faux toughness has created a whole new set of victims — innocent people on death row, juveniles tried as adults, 50 year olds entering their third decade of imprisonment for drug possession, and young men like Esequiel — shot dead on land that he and his family honored and tended.

When the Clinton administration decided to calm an anxious public by deploying US Marines to the border near Redford, Texas, it was engaging in pointless feel-good theatrics. It looked great. The US Marines looked great. We showed those creeps who was in charge.

Too bad an innocent young man in South Texas had to ruin all the fun.


No Escape from Grief: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.

But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”

I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.

So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.

Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.

Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.

As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.

But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.

They are human.

And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.

In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.

I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.