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As they say, nothing ever dies on the Internet. That’s how I came across an old clip recently of Ron Colburn on Fox. He’s the president of something called the Border Patrol Foundation. He was explaining why border agents terrorizing asylum seekers with pepper spray was appropriate.
“The deterrent they used is OC pepper spray—it’s literally water, pepper, with a small amount of alcohol for evaporation purposes. It’s natural. You could actually put it on your nachos and eat it,” he said.
That got a lot of hoots and howls back in 2018. As I was watching it, though, I grew curious. What is the Border Patrol Foundation? Why is Fox presenting Colburn as if he’s a moral authority? So I looked into it. Turns out the Border Patrol Foundation is, perhaps, a metaphor for not only the militarization of civil society, but the cheapening of valor.
According to its website, its mission is “to honor the memory of fallen U.S. Border Patrol agents and provide support and resources to the families. BPF provides support to those employed by the Border Patrol for on- and off-duty deaths, injuries, illnesses, family medical emergencies, special circumstances and student scholarships.”
That might sound altruistic enough, but look closer. The key word here is “fallen.” That’s a word our culture tends to reserve for military service members who die nobly—in combat, especially, but also in the service of country generally. Implicit in “fallen” is valor. That can’t be given. It must be earned. When coupled with “honor,” the foundation gives the impression that border agents are on par with the Marines.
Not too surprising. There’s a history. The Editorial Board’s friendly neighborhood sociologist wrote earlier this month that police took an aggressive posture toward enforcing the law after the 1960s civil rights movement. “Starting with the Nixon administration’s tough-on-crime rhetoric,” Professor Rod Graham wrote, “police departments have been modeling themselves after the military. Local police officers are being trained to be warriors, complete with military-style equipment.”
So if we say that financial support for the families of “fallen” border patrol agents who “died in the line of duty” is righteous, we must also say that it’s part of the larger militarization of civil society in which law enforcement officers are trained as warriors to hold the line between “civilization” and “barbarism,” as combat troops battling an “enemy,” which is, as Rod said, “the always-suspect Black and brown” person.
But there’s more here. As law enforcement around the country militarized itself—especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11—there has been a coinciding push culturally to elevate police (or in this case, border agents) to the level of the military. The police officer and the soldier are now seen as equally noble. As the soldier dies in combat, so does the cop. In both cases, our culture tends to “honor fallen heroes.”
That means the means of death is important. After all, the military does not view a service member who died from illness or accident as equal to a service member who died fighting. The former is mourned, recognized, and remembered. But the latter showed valor. His or her honors are categorically different, and should be. The value of this difference is evidenced by people who have been outed as frauds impersonating combat veterans. Their offense is called “stolen valor.”
While the nonprofit’s website page obscures means of death—the ones I looked at use a generic “death occurred in the line of duty”—the group’s Facebook page offers details. Here are some examples.
On November 15, 2016, David Gomez “suffered a heart attack while on bicycle patrol duty near El Paso.” He died in the hospital. On November 3, 2006, David Webb “was involved in a single vehicle accident.” He died from his injuries. On November 2, David R. Delaney “collapsed and died while patrolling on foot.” No other means of death is mentioned. On October 27, 1925, Ross A. Gardner was “operating a government-owned motorcycle” and “ran into the rear of an automobile that was stalled on the roadway.” On October 25, 2002, Catherine M. Hill died after her vehicle rolled off a cliff. On October 23, 1998, Walter S. Panchison died after crashing a Border Patrol plane. On October 20, 1998, Jesus De La Ossa and Thomas J. Williams died in a head-on collision. On October 25, 1968, Ralph L. Anderson died in a firearms mishap.
The Facebook page goes on and on. Some deaths were dramatic. Charles Gardiner appears to have been ambushed by moonshiners in 1922. But otherwise, these “fallen” agents seemed to have been felled by incompetence, human error, or bad luck. These are not the noble heroes the word “fallen” suggests. To be sure, death any which way is horrible. But the Border Patrol Foundation won’t let the dead rest. Instead, it’s treating honorable public servants as if they were combat veterans and, thus, cheapening actual valor of actual combat veterans.
The Border Patrol Foundation isn’t alone. Much of the rightward drift in American politics over the last 20 years has sought to distort reality for the purpose of beating back advances made democratically. The right wants fewer immigrants, period, no matter how they got here. So they say they’re “illegal.” They say the border is “open” and “under assault.” They say border agents are “battling” to protect “our way of life.” But to achieve their end, they must reduce moral consideration to the level of amoral power. In that sense, the right isn’t just cheapening valor.
It’s profaning it, too.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr. This essay appeared in a slightly different form on the Editorial Board on November 18, 2021.