Should we be willing to sacrifice a few innocent civilian lives for the greater national good? The answer may seem obvious to most of us — and depends a lot on how you define “greater good” — but there will always be that other side of the aisle stomping its feet and vehemently arguing the contrary.
Such was the case nineteen years ago, when a South Texas high school student named Esequiel Hernández was shot dead by camouflaged marines patrolling the Mexican-American border area for drug smugglers. Esequiel apparently made the fatal mistake of toting a small-caliber rifle that he used to ward off predators as he herded goats, and inadvertently pointed said rifle toward a line of grassy shrubs that concealed a team of heavily armed killing machines. It probably didn’t help that the American citizen was also clearly of Latino descent.
The 2008 PBS documentary The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, directed by Kieran Fitzgerald, explores this tragic incident and the protracted public debate that resulted from the first military killing of an American civilian since the Kent State shootings of 1970. Featuring interviews with advocates, family members, law enforcement, and the marines themselves, The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández lays bare the tumultuous aftermath of a national tragedy without losing sight of the life that was taken on that late-Spring day in 1997.
Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones — who later spun the story off into his narrative feature The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada — The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández clearly has mercy on the young marines who were investigated but ultimately not indicted for criminal wrongdoing, though it does take issue with the militarization of our country’s southern border. In fact, the year before the documentary was aired, George W. Bush mandated the remilitarization of border security for the first time since Esequiel’s killing, giving a special resonance to his death.
Now, as our national conversation reaches new extremes in the unending tug-of-war over immigration policy, it might be a good time to look back at this story of an innocent life cut short by young men who mistook him for their enemy.
Esequiel Hernández would have turned 37 last month.