Believe it or not, a two and a half thousand-year-old Greek play can explain a lot about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids under the Trump administration. With all the chaos going on recently, it is necessary to block out the news just to remain sane. Retreating to the woods like Thoreau, however, will not solve our problems. Yet occasionally it is necessary to escape and, as that nonconformist once advised, “read not the Times. Read the eternities.” In fact, reading and reflecting on Sophocles’ Antigone can help orient us to the questions we should really be asking in this situation.*
Antigone follows a Greek city, Thebes, which has just emerged from a civil war. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, were slain, leaving Antigone, their sister, the cultural and religious duty to mourn and bury them. Creon, however, seeking to establish order and himself as king, proclaims that Polyneices’ body will be left to rot, for he fought for the losing side and is thus nothing but a traitor. Antigone, the female protagonist, defies Creon’s orders and defends her partial burial, saying:
It was not Zeus who made this proclamation;
nor was it Justice dwelling with the gods below
who set in place such laws as these for humankind;
…I was not going to pay the gods’ just penalty
for breaking these [obligations], dreading the purposes of a
mere man. (450-60)
Herein lies the struggle between Antigone and Creon. Antigone is fulfilling her obligations to a brother, and Creon is imposing order by outlawing the fulfillment of these obligations and leaving the corpse unburied. Antigone, for her defiance, is imprisoned and dies. Creon’s family falls apart as a result, for his son was engaged to Antigone and commits suicide, and his wife, distraught over this, does the same. When Creon laments his fall, the chorus notes “Alas! You seem now to see justice, but too late.” (1270)
Creon’s rule lacked reverence towards the demands of justice with regards to treatment of family. Less interested in obeying justice than having others obeying him, Creon explained that:
The one appointed by the city should be listened to,
in small things and in just things, and the opposite.
There is no greater evil than unruliness. (670-3)
Creon’s philosophy of rule was focused entirely on law and order, and ignored justice, which is that to which all laws should be oriented. As a result, his rule was unmoored and ultimately failed.
Returning to current events, things begin to make more sense when we consider the connection between laws, relationships, and justice. The uptick in ICE arrests has kept many immigrant communities anxious, and it is not hard to see why when these arrests often involve people providing for their families. Arrests like these are not necessarily a novel occurrence, but it is certainly a break from the Obama administration’s policy to not prioritize people who have not committed serious crimes. As Dara Lind explains, “Obama used increased enforcement as a credibility-building tool with the public as he attempted to push Congress to enact an immigration overhaul that would have given millions of undocumented Americans a path to citizenship. Trump, by contrast, appears to be using raids, and enforcement, as an end in themselves.” Obama’s policy, while maybe imperfect, struck a balance between enforcing the law and keeping in mind the situation on the ground: that in the mess that is human life, undocumented residents were not necessarily criminals. Trump’s policy, however, sees people, often and regrettably referred to as “illegals,” as the problem.
But how can a person be called illegal? Is not the purpose of the law to protect persons and establish conditions in which they may flourish? Reading Antigone brings these questions to mind and challenges us to make sense of the meaning and relationship between law, justice, order, leadership, obligations, and community. Creon made Polyneices an enemy of the state, and thus excluded him from Greek obligations towards the dead. Trump, in a similar maneuver, has repeatedly painted illegal residents as criminals beyond contempt, thus alienating them from our communities and excluding them from the cultural and religious obligation to love one’s neighbor. This administration is trying to solve our problems by eliminating people in problematic situations, in stark contrast with the very purpose of law and our obligations to others. Any adequate opposition, therefore, will need to radically reject the politics of selective personhood—a politics that operates by excluding the weak, disadvantaged, and desperate, and subsequently worshiping the strong, wealthy, and autonomous—in order to respond humanely to the politics of Trump.