Four women from the No More Deaths organization were recently found guilty on charges relating to their depositing of food and water for those illegally crossing the international border into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
The facts in the case are not in doubt. In verdict, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco stated, “The Defendants did not get an access permit, they did not remain on designated roads, and they left water, food, and crates in the Refuge.”
All three are criminal misdemeanors.
Velasco also provided an interesting description of the defendants’ defense. He wrote, “The Defendants assert a modified Antigone defense, in that they were acting in accordance with a higher law.”
Antigone is a character in Greek mythology who defied Creon, the king, by performing rites and burying her deceased brother. Creon had ordered his body left on the ground to either rot or be consumed by scavengers. The penalty for performing a proper burial was death.
Antigone believed that when the laws handed down by the gods conflicted with the laws of the king, she must follow the gods. Antigone chose the gods, accepting that she would be killed.
There is, however, a stark difference between Antigone and the No More Deaths volunteers. Antigone was confronted with two conflicting commands regarding the disposition of her brother’s body — two commands, one thing.
The No More Deaths volunteers had to conflate their violations of federal law with humanitarian aid to create a conflict, but neither the presiding judge nor the laws in this case held any opinions regarding humanitarian aid. It’s not two commands, one thing; it’s one command for one thing and a different command for another thing.
Activists in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s got Antigone right. Activists then were confronted with conflicting commands regarding where to sit on the bus — two commands, one thing. Rosa Parks made the moral choice, accepting that it would lead to her arrest.
I found an opinion piece in New York Times that makes the point eloquently. It was published on Jan. 12, 1964, Page 17. The author is Charles Frankel. The title is, “Is it Right to Break the Law?” It includes the following paragraph:
“We may admire a man like Martin Luther King, who is prepared to defy the authorities in the name of a principle, and we may think that he is entirely in the right; just the same, his right to break the law cannot be officially recognized. No society, whether free or tyrannical, can give its citizens the right to break its laws. To ask it to do so is to ask it to proclaim, as a matter of law, that its laws are not laws.”
So, can the No More Deaths folks help keep people from dying in the desert without breaking laws? I spoke with Bob Feinman, vice chair of Humane Borders, a humanitarian-aid organization that places water stations in remote locations to save the lives of illegal border crossers.
I asked him if Humane Borders makes a conscious effort to stay within the law, “No, no!” he corrected me. “It’s more than a conscious effort, it’s a rule, period.”
I also asked Feinman if the stations are all located on private land. He said, “All of our tanks are on pieces of land where we have written permission to be, that includes private land and government land.”
While humanitarian aid is a high calling, it does not provide a “get out of jail free” card. Acknowledging legal limits will both simplify, and increase the efficiency of, aid operations.