- - Wednesday, June 27, 2018


In our longest-running national morality play, the breathless tones of blanket news coverage transmit a common theme. Even after President Trump relaxed his “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, America has lately rediscovered our porous and problematic southern border. The problem is large enough that there is ample room for hyperbole from all sides.

Ambitious politicians like former San Antonio Mayor and Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro loudly proclaim that separation amounts to “state-sponsored child abuse that is traumatizing young children by taking them away from their parents.”

His colleagues from farther north also turned up in the forbidding and unfamiliar surroundings of South Texas, withering from the heat and requesting emergency rations of sunblock, “SPF 50 or higher please.” Only on “The Bachelor” could you find more dubious characters claiming that, appearances notwithstanding, they were here for “all the right reasons.”

It is what Victor Davis Hanson calls our latest “immigration psycho-drama” in which reason and history appear to have left for the beach — probably South Padre Island, the seashore closest to the action. In this ongoing bonfire of the vanities, no statement is seemingly too absurd. Some demonstrators carried signs asserting that no immigrant is illegal, that there is no right to exclude anyone from lands that were stolen in the first place. (That argument makes more sense if you happen to be a Comanche, canonically fierce warriors who ruled Texas for a millennium until overcome by industrial age warfare and repeating weapons.)

Still others insist that, even in an age of terrorism, it is morally wrong to exclude anyone seeking to better their lives through immigration. As justification, they proudly point to the fastest-growing category of border detainees: Other Than Mexican. If you find that new reality troubling, then you probably need to sign up for a course in Detecting White Privilege at your nearest state-subsidized educational outlet.

In a counter-point driven by stunning common sense, Henry Cuellar, a local Democratic congressman, points out that the border problem could be improved with better U.S. diplomacy and development programs in Central and South America. Instability is a highly communicable disease. “Cooperating on security problems is better than waiting for refugees to appear on our doorstep.”

It is sheer coincidence that, even as the morality play reached its height, the citizens of San Antonio were grappling with a problem that demanded reason, common sense and a finely tuned respect for history. Long held sacred as a touchstone of Texas, U.S. and even world history, the sad fact is that the Alamo is gradually falling down. The old mission has been rescued several times from developers or destruction in the 182 years since the epic battle fought within its adobe walls. But 15 million annual visitors have taken a toll; so too have vibrations from nearby street traffic.

The Cenotaph, a 60-foot monument commemorating the 1836 battle, is rusting and increasingly unstable. What may be even worse is that the Alamo and Cenotaph sit on one side of a broad plaza: The other is dominated by tacky souvenir shops and dubious commercial “attractions.” Imagine if the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington had to share space with carousels or kiddie rides and you can easily grasp the current incongruities of Alamo Plaza.

Beginning in 2015, the city fathers commissioned a long-term study, providing timely repairs to the state’s leading tourist destination while also re-imagining the site in time for its 2036 bicentennial. As with immigration, opportunities for misunderstanding abounded, from ideological to practical. Did it make sense to commemorate what some saw as a battlefield in which mostly white Anglos fought — and lost — a battle to Santa Ana’s Mexican army?

Once you answered that, then did it make sense to wall off and re-purpose a vibrant center of San Antonio’s downtown commerce? Worse yet: Would political correctness lead to historical compromise, obscuring the larger dimensions of struggle and compromise?

Last week, the Alamo Master Plan was released for public comment during four well-attended citizens’ meetings. The architectural re-imagining was simply stunning, a tasteful combination of archaeology and site planning focusing visitor attention on the Alamo, America’s Thermopylae. The stories of heroism on both sides would now be told in a new museum that better strategic planning might have added long ago. Unbidden, a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address even came to mind: ” the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

History is ultimately a choice. How can we best remember our inevitably mixed record of conflict and reconciliation? And how can those memories be consecrated and applied, hopefully to bring people closer together, not farther apart?

• Ken Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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