Let’s Not Repeat “Rule-of-Law” Atrocities

We are witnessing history repeating itself with Jeff Sessions’ citation of Romans 13, and Trumps “zero tolerance” policy on separating immigrant children from their family. I would like to remind us all how unholy unions of spiritual and secular rule-of-law reasoning used to support inhuman and wayward laws wreak havoc on us all.

Magdalene Asylum at Wooloowin, Brisbane, 1937[1], John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 1937
For a good portion of the modern era, Ireland locked away so-called undesirable “fallen women” into Magdalene Laundries under the guise of religious and state “rule-of-law” philosophy designed to protect against contaminating Ireland’s moral and economic purity. A “zero tolerance” policy was established against any woman held in suspicion: single mothers, prostitutes, women who were considered too pretty, and the list goes on. For single mothers and those who became pregnant out of wedlock, their children were forcibly taken from them and adopted out of the country without their permission, while she endured slave labor for the rest of her life in a laundry. Names were changed, and families were moved around making it impossible to reunite.

Here in the United States, we are creating the conditions for a similar long-term, and wide-reaching historical disaster with the current administration’s illegal immigration policy, promoting the separation of children from their family. This policy is further supported by a rhetoric of how those illegally crossing into the US could be “murderers and thieves.” This narrow xenophobic and nationalistic discourse framed within “rule-of-law” logic will damage our nation’s core humanistic values and ruin the lives of thousands.

Beys Afroyim (1893-1984), subject of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court citizenship law case Afroyim v. Rusk, with his infant son Amos. Taken in a park in New York City in 1947. Original photo is now at the Austrian National Library.

Both Sarah Huckabee (secular argument) and Jeff Sessions (religious reasoning) cite the “rule of law” in this human rights catastrophe as justification for terrorizing families that illegally enter this country, while, ironically enough, the US exits the UN Human Rights Council. Sessions, while promoting a questionable marriage between state and religious law, proclaims: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” This rule-of-law argument has been used to justify discriminatory and inhumane laws since the beginning of recorded history, defending slavery, mass executions and the attempted eradication of large, marginalized groups of society.

“Rule-of-law” arguments are what we in communication studies call narrowly framed master arguments designed to blind our sight from other evidence. Like Creon in Sophocles’ Tragic play the “Antigone,” we develop tunnel vision blinding us to the human element impacted by the rule-of-law. In the “Antigone,” Creon decrees that his nephew Polyneices cannot be buried as he brought a war to Thebes. During his campaign, Polyneices is killed, and Antigone wishes to bury her brother according to spiritual traditions of the time. Creon decrees against this act. Antigone, however, finds herself called by greater laws, unwritten spiritual and humanitarian laws, which puts kindness first. She breaks Creon’s order and is sentenced, without a jury of her peers, to be buried alive, justified by the “rule-of-law” edict.

The “Antigone” has been used as a protest play since it’s creation in 441 BC, adapted continually to speak for misguided applications of “rule-of-law” designed to protect inhuman laws, including legislation that promoted over a hundred years of Magdalene Laundries atrocities.

Trump and Lady Liberty
Sableman, Paul. (Feb. 4, 2017). “Trump and Lady Liberty.” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/32651533221/

Unholy unions of spiritual and secular rule-of-law reasoning destroy the foundations on society. As humans, we have a higher calling, one that views all of humanity, worthy of consideration over poorly written laws. The poor, the illegal immigrant, women, children, those from other nations and religions are all worthy of humane concern. We must rise above this repetition of history, embracing a better way, a road not wrought by human right abuses.

As a scholar of the Magdalene Laundries, I receive mail every year from children looking for their birth mothers. The pain and anguish these now grown children live with are profound and devastating. Since the Irish state at the time did not require convents and religious laundries to keep records on the “inmates,” and as inmate names were often changed, the chances of reuniting are slim to naught. Today we have an opportunity as a nation to do better, and we must or we all risk being buried alive by ill-begotten laws designed to destroy.


Dr. Rebecca Lea McCarthy is a communication’s instructor for South Seattle College and the author of “Origins of the Magdalene Laundries: An Analytical History.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s