Kidnapping Kids: As American as the Fourth of July

Cover art for the book Taking Children by Laura Briggs

It’s been two hundred forty-four years since the declaration of independence was sent by horseback to the peasants, city dwellers and plantation owners in the colonies on North America’s eastern coast. Britain’s subjects across the ocean took up their cry.  “Damn the English and their East Indies Tea Company and damn their taxes, too.” The colonists’ determination to take the mountains, valleys, swamps and beaches from the British crown was now a war. A war between white skinned folks over lands robbed from humans considered savages with no right to anything, not even their children.

Although Africans stolen from their homes were enslaved in both the northern and southern colonies, it’s clear from history that the southern slavers who signed on to the declaration did so primarily to keep their slaves. Forever. The humans they worked and traded were more than labor. They were also accumulated wealth and investment property. The latter was especially true if one owned “good breeding stock” capable of producing lots of offspring. A mortgage could be had by a slaver with such collateral. The children birthed by these women rarely got to watch their children age. Instead, they were taken from their mothers and sold to another slaver or slave owning institution.

Today, families hoping to gain asylum, work or safety flee the lands to the US south. Escaping societies broken by US funded wars, unfair and exploitive trade agreements, corruption and bloodshed stemming from the racist war on drugs, these families languish separately and together in camps and detention facilities across the United States. The facilities are part of a policy of punishment founded in a denial of the families’ humanity. As Laura Briggs makes very clear in her book Taking Children: A History of American Terror, the policy is a bipartisan policy, its basic tenet of using children as chips in a negotiation where the State holds most the odds.

As the title states, Briggs’ text is a history of officially sanctioned kidnapping in the new world. Although focused primarily on the United States, she does discuss the Argentinian children stolen by the ultra-right regime in that country during the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of those children were taken after their leftist parents were killed or imprisoned. In a similar, but less documented, manner, many indigenous families had their children stolen by the authoritarian regimes governing Guatemala. These are the children who became known as los desaparecidos.

Without missing a beat, Taking Children brings the reader back to the US and its decades long policy of kidnapping native American children and forcing them to attend schools set up by the military and different Christian churches.  The point of said schools was to destroy indigenous culture and replace it with a rather extreme Christian capitalist ideology. Given that this was done in the name of Christianity, there was little outcry from any US citizens. Indeed, it was considered to be the white person’s Christian duty as surely as killing those indigenous who resisted was.  This is why many native children were adopted by white folks without the birth mother’s knowledge.  The fact that First Nations people continue to be treated as heathens and savages by too many elements of the state says a lot about the deep-rootedness of an Indian-hating ideology.  As Briggs points out, the removal of native peoples from their lands is often related to the desire to extract resources from those lands.  Obviously, that is more than just a coincidence.

If ripping infants from their mothers is considered an effective way to discourage asylum seekers from entering the US, many US citizens say let them rip. It’s clear from the news coverage of the immigration patrols that there always seems to be enough uniformed sadists willing to carry out such deeds. When asked how they can participate in such an endeavor, those with something of a heart seem to always respond with the line made famous by Nazis in Nuremburg: “I was just following orders.”  Those who delight in ripping infants from their mother’s arms or forcing young children to sleep on concrete and testify by themselves as to why they should be allowed in the US say little, but enjoy it the most.  Beyond the emotional element lies something more insidious, and even more brutal.  It is a philosophy based in white supremacist and imperial ideology, which in turn stems from and strengthens the essence of capitalism.  That is, how can one extract wealth from this person?  If there is no way to do so, then this person is expendable.  Let them rot in the poverty capitalism has created.  The ultimate outcome of such a mindset is extermination, but that would require taking responsibility for the deaths and misery these policies create.  Instead, it is easier to cast those considered expendable to the wayside and let the market take the blame for the death almost certain to occur.

Taking Children is an incisive history of kidnapping as American policy. The author has composed a litany of historical moments of child snatching that would shame Leopold and Loeb.  Furthermore, author Briggs connects these into a seamless tale of torment, torture and arrogance; a description of US history if there ever was one.  It is a history that demands a reckoning.  I, for one, hope to be alive when the time of reckoning comes.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: