Editor's Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) - The small thin body slowly climbs the side of a 25-story skyscraper in St. Paul, Minnesota, clinging on for his life, his narrow paws spread painfully wide. His little face, seen at close range through the windows when he stops to rest, shows fear and exhaustion, but the windows don't open and the office workers who film him are helpless to intervene.
Through the day and night, as he climbed and slept, the raccoon became a social media star, with his own hashtag (#MPRraccoon). His story had suspense and pathos: a creature that finds himself alone in an unfamiliar and forbidding environment, without access to food or water, embarks on a highly risky journey in order to survive. No wonder people around the world kept vigil.
#MPRraccoon's story has a happy ending. He made it to the roof and was lured by cat food into a pen to be picked up by St. Paul Wildlife Management, treated and released into an appropriate habitat. "Goodbye friend!" tweeted UBS Plaza, the site of the animal drama.
This animal drama may seem trivial, but the emotion and attention it aroused carry lessons for us in America today. For many other small creatures are now in the midst of journeys they never expected to take, which are unlikely to have the good outcome of #MPRraccoon's. I am thinking of the children of migrant families who in the last month, in accordance with a new policy of President Donald Trump's administration, have been forcibly separated from all that is familiar to them, who are on their own journeys of survival, too terrified to fully rest, and often too young to understand what is happening to them and why.
This has been the experience of little 5-year-old José, torn from his father in El Paso, Texas, and forced into a bewildering journey in the company of people he has never met, first a government escort and then a foster mother, according to The New York Times. His only comfort has been a drawing he made on Holiday Inn stationery. In it, the sun shines and the flowers bloom; he's surrounded by his family, who come from Honduras; his parents seem to be holding iPhones, and on his mother's lock-screen image is a picture, perhaps of him. If so, how intuitive José is -- for this is what he and other seized children will likely be to their parents: mere images to be remembered and cried over.
Although José lives in a home, many other children in his situation may end up, like #MPRraccoon, trapped in the human equivalent of pens and cages. Government shelters already house thousands, but now, according to McClatchy, the Department of Health and Human Services -- what a misnomer, in this case -- is considering building tent cities to house the thousands of children they intend to capture. Texas is one likely site of the kinds of tent cities that are so familiar to us from the news about refugee camps across the world.
Those who ask how Trump could target children have perhaps not fully understood who he is or what we as a nation now face: a concerted campaign to decrease the number of people of color in America through population management measures such as those affecting José's family. White House chief of staff John Kelly's recent callous comment that immigrant children will be "put into foster care -- or whatever" tells you all you need to know about the ends-justifies-the-means attitude of our current government and the way it intends to use children as hostages to strike at a group that's been designated as an enemy of the state.
As this unfolds, Americans might reflect on whether they want to be in the position of the office workers who watched the saga of #MPRraccoon through the window, unable to do anything for him. In that case, being bystanders was appropriate: We were advised that leaving him alone gave him the best chance of making it through intact. That's not the case with the children now clinging to their drawings and blankets for their own dear lives as they awaken each day on a ledge of their own, with no real refuge -- their homes and families -- in sight.