MS-13 and the Imago Dei

Last Wednesday, President Trump doubled down on comments he had previously made in which he referred to members of the MS-13 street gang as animals. This has sparked a major political debate over the appropriateness of this label. Much of this debate has focused on the broad spectrum of criminal activities in which MS-13 engaged (ranging from human and drug trafficking to prostitution) and the extreme violence employed by the gang to defend their criminal empire. Particularly on the conservative side of the aisle many have argued that the blatant disregard for human life shown by MS-13 is reciprocal, that as they discard the humanity of their victims so might their own humanity be discarded.

While it is certainly easy to read accounts of the brutality of MS-13 and sympathize with the claim that they have abandoned their humanity and should be treated as such, such an argument disregards what forms one of the central pillars of ethics in the Christian West: the imago dei, that man has been created in the image of God. St. John Paul II commented on this in his encyclical Centesimus Annus in which he writes, “God has imprinted his own image and likeness on man (cf. Gen 1:26), conferring upon him an incomparable dignity….there exist rights which do not correspond to any work he performs, but which flow from his essential dignity as a person.” Man’s being a reflection of his creator grants him an almost infinite dignity. This dignity cannot be stripped from man by any actions on his part, as it is an integral part of humanity, and gives all humanity an inherent worth. While one can rightly condemn and punish the actions of MS-13, or any criminal for that matter, those same actions can never strip them of their inherent human dignity. This is a crucial distinction that forms a foundation of moral thought, particularly in the public sphere.

Casting aside the concept of the imago dei as the central pillar of ethics brings with it unintended consequences, namely the loss of a moral foundation. In denying the inherent dignity unique to mankind any ability to make moral judgements is lost. By calling members of MS-13 animals, one loses the ability to cast judgement on their crimes. One does not call a shark evil when it attacks a swimmer. If one loses the ability to condemn the actions of MS-13 as evil it is a profound loss, stripping away any objection to their crimes based in anything other than preference. St. Thomas Aquinas also observed this in the prologue to the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae where he calls the imago dei a central pillar for the moral judgment of man’s actions. It is only because man has the power of reason and free will that he can truly be held culpable for his actions. Should these be denied, that culpability is diminished to the point of negligence, and condemnation becomes impossible. It is only by preserving and when necessary defending the human dignity of criminals that their actions can be condemned.

To refer to human beings as animals, even humans who behave despicably, and to treat them as such degrades not only them but also those who engage in such attacks. By calling members of MS-13 animals one lowers oneself, denying the gangsters their humanity much as they deny humanity to their victims. It is only through rising above and affirming their humanity that such violence can be truly defeated at its root, the soul.

While President Trump’s initial comment that members of MS-13 are animals could be explained as rhetorical flare, both his doubling down on the remark and subsequent defenses of his word choice ought be more directly confronted. All mankind is created in the image of God, a fact which confers inherent dignity and value onto every human being. To deny this fact--to reduce men to animals--strips them of this inherent dignity, eliminates a guidestone for moral judgment, and degrades the accuser as much as the accused. This position, that even the most brutal criminals maintain their human dignity, does not preclude their being judged and punished for their actions. Rather, it is a necessary precondition for such punishment, as only through an acknowledgment of a common humanity can such punishment be rooted in true justice.