“Have we gotten so cold?”

NEW YORK. – That was the horrified question that Al Sharpton, Afro-American civil rights activist and TV commentator, asked Sunday (July 20) at the Riverside Church in New York City. Gathered at the historic temple were relatives, neighbors, friends and hundreds of simple people from a community that had been moved and horrified by the death of Eric Garner, 43, the father of six, in the hands of City policemen.

Last Thursday (July 17), five or six police officers flung him to the ground to arrest him in Staten Island County, where he lived, on suspicion that he was selling cigarettes illegally. One of them, Daniel Pantaleo, applied to Garner – an asthma sufferer – a chokehold, something strictly forbidden by the N.Y. Police Department.

arrest-struggle-deathA video recorded by a passer-by shows Garner on the ground, one of the policemen with his arm around his neck and the others placing their elbows, knees and hands atop him, though it was clear that he was offering no resistance.

In the recording, you can hear Garner repeat desperately that he cannot breathe. And you can see the indifference of the officers, who provided no help for the Afro-American man who was dying, panting, sprawled on the sidewalk. It was that indifference that prompted Sharpton’s horrified words.

“None of [the policemen] said, ‘Let’s stop. He can’t breathe,’ ” Sharpton told the hundreds of people at the church. “Even if police procedures don’t kick in, when does your sense of humanity kick in? Have we gotten so cold?”

It is awful to have to admit it, but, yes, so it seems, so it is. I don’t know exactly how much but undoubtedly we have gotten much colder. That’s the horror of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, where, at the moment I write this column, 452 Palestinians had died, more than 80 of them children, as well as 15 members of the invading troops. Who knows what will be the final macabre tally of this unequal conflict.

“It is the new law of retaliation, Israeli-style: one hundred eyes for an eye, one hundred teeth for one tooth, a spiral of blood and vengeance that has been maintained for decades, with the complicity of the United States and the inaction of the European Union,” is how Spanish journalist Ignacio Escolar describes the terror the Palestinian people are living through.

To find more proof that, yes, unfortunately Sharpton’s fear is justified, you need only go to the border with Mexico. There, gather thousands of Central American children who have fled, unaccompanied, from the torture, the misery and death, defying all obstacles.

And while it’s true that their situation has brought out the compassion of one part of U.S. society, it is no less true that in has had a contrary effect on other sectors.

In other words, instead of reviving in them some sleeping remnant of human solidarity, the children’s plight has emboldened the intolerance of hate groups such as the Minutemen and the Ku Klux Klan, covert racists who pass themselves off as “concerned citizens.”

They are pseudo-patriots consumed by prejudice, who, calling this tragic exodus of innocents an invasion, hasten to emerge from under the stones where they hid, to kindle the fire of hatred against immigrants, using the children as an excuse.

Make no mistake, they are many and a lot more despicable than what we imagine. As an example, read this:

“If you see an ‘illegal,’ point your weapon between his eyes and say: ‘Cross the border right back or I shoot.” This is the brutal message to the immigrants, no matter their age, from a group that calls itself “Operation Secure Our Border,” according to a video in YouTube that has already been expunged.

Hanging in the air remains, more than a question, Al Sharpton’s horrified lament: Have we gotten so cold?