State of the Union

Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans

A mother lets her daughter play in the park unaccompanied. A mother leaves her son in the car for a few moments, while she runs into a store to buy headphones. Many parents would consider these actions to be unwise—but are they criminal? According to three recent stories in the news, yes.

In the first case, Debra Harrell, a resident of North Augusta, South Carolina, allowed her daughter to play at the park while she worked at a local McDonald’s. She gave her daughter a cell phone. Lenore Skenazy noted in Reason that the park is “so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking … there were swings, a ‘splash pad,’ and shade.” But on her second day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. When the little girl said she was working, the adult called the cops, who declared the girl “abandoned,” and arrested Harrell.

The second story was shared by Kim Brooks in Salon back in June: her four-year-old son insisted on accompanying her to the grocery store for a quick errand, but then refused to go inside the store. After noting that it was a “mild, overcast, 50-degree day,” and that there were several cars nearby, Brooks agreed and quickly ran into the store. Unbeknownst to her, an adult nearby saw her leave her son, and proceeded to record the whole incident on his phone, watched Brooks return and drive away, and then called the police. The police issued a warrant for her arrest.

These are only a few recent stories in which parents have faced arrest after leaving their children unsupervised. As Radley Balko notes at the Washington Post, these incidents seem to signal the “increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions.”

This latter point hearkens back to Robert Nisbet’s excellent book The Quest for Community: Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place—assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a “primacy of claim” upon our children. “It is hard to overlook the fact,” he wrote, “that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church.” In this world, the term “nanny state” takes on a very literal meaning. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 37 comments

Slenderman and the “Mythos” of Modernism

On May 31, a bicyclist found a young girl, stabbed 19 times with a five inch blade, after she crawled out of the Wisconsin woods and dragged herself toward the nearest road.

The perpetrators Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 and classmates of the victim, are being charged as adults with attempted murder. The stabbing was an attempt to pay tribute to Slenderman, a faceless, betentacled, and besuited character from Internet lore. The two girls were caught along the road after they had committed the crime, apparently walking to an imaginary rendezvous point with Slenderman.

They first discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki, which is where most of the current fan fiction resides. They reportedly planned the attack for months, finally luring the victim into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek.

The Slenderman myth is one of the first pieces of popular lore truly borne of the Internet, beginning online and accruing momentum and backstory as people photoshopped and blogged Slenderman into existence. The rapid spread of his legend surprised even Eric Knudsen, Slenderman’s creator. He said in an interview that he didn’t expect it to move beyond the Somethingawful forum where he posted the first Slenderman image:

It was amazing to see people create their own little part of Slender Man in order to perpetuate his existance [sic]. … I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend.

When he created Slenderman, he said that he wanted something “whose motivations can barely be comprehended,” and that caused “general unease and terror in a general population.” He here pinpoints the power of Slenderman: the omnipotence of the unknown. The Internet has, after all, given us the ability to know every imaginable aspect of our world; but not to belong to it.

Vice chalks the violence up to poorly-managed hormones and small-town boredom. An Mytheos Holt at R Street asks whether their violence could have been prevented by addressing mental illness openly. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times makes Slenderman’s faceless horror emblematic of the “selfie” age—an attempt to use fear to push against compulsive, narcissistic self-documentation.

Collin Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College, mentioned in an e-mail that the need to find meaning and community, to craft an identity, could have driven the crime, “Killing in the name of Slenderman and investing oneself in religious rituals are not entirely different and may reflect latent fears we have about being utterly alone in the universe.”

In the mythos, Slenderman’s victims are always alone, and radically estranged from help or support. There is no intelligible pattern or motive to the victimization. In contrast to the bogeymen of “organic” folklore, he has no distinct vendetta against transgressors of social or moral norms.

The two girls were not driven to violence by their encounter with Slenderman. He was emblematic of faceless, nameless dread: of complete alienation. As Kathleen Hale pointed out at Vice, girls of their age are experiencing radical emotional isolation, and possible mental health issues and public school social dynamics only exacerbate the problem. In a way, the killing was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to connect with someone or something when faced with being “utterly alone.” Slenderman is the demon of a suburban age.


Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , . 9 comments

Seven Reasons Police Brutality Is Systemic, Not Anecdotal

Darrin Manning’s unprovoked “stop and frisk” encounter with the Philadelphia police left him hospitalized with a ruptured testicle. Neykeyia Parker was violently dragged out of her car and aggressively arrested in front of her young child for “trespassing” at her own apartment complex in Houston. A Georgia toddler was burned when police threw a flash grenade into his playpen during a raid, and the manager of a Chicago tanning salon was confronted by a raiding police officer bellowing that he would kill her and her family, captured on the salon’s surveillance. An elderly man in Ohio was left in need of facial reconstructive surgery after police entered his home without a warrant to sort out a dispute about a trailer.

These stories are a small selection of recent police brutality reports, as police misconduct has become a fixture of the news cycle.

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and the media is inevitably drawn toward tales of conflict. Despite the increasing frequency with which we hear of misbehaving cops, many Americans maintain a default respect for the man in uniform. As an NYPD assistant chief put it, “We don’t want a few bad apples or a few rogue cops damaging” the police’s good name.

This is an attractive proposal, certainly, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Here are seven reasons why police misconduct is a systemic problem, not “a few bad apples”:

1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with family pets. “Police kill family dog” is practically its own subgenre of police brutality reports, and most of these cases—like the story of the Minnesota children who were made to sit, handcuffed, next to their dead and bleeding pet—are all too preventable. Some police departments have begun to train their officers to deal more appropriately with pets, but Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, a police consulting firm, says it’s still extremely rare. In the absence of this training, police are less likely to view violence as a last resort.

2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.

“Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.

3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.

In central New Jersey, for instance, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are never investigated. Nor can that be explained away as stereotypical New Jersey corruption. Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that. In Chicago, the numbers are even more skewed: There were 10,000 abuse complaints filed against the Chicago PD between 2002 and 2004, and just 19 of them ”resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.” On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.

4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.

Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct. Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged . 49 comments

Before #YesAllWomen, There Was The Gift of Fear

I had the vertiginous experience of reading Gavin de Becker’s 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear in the midst of the reporting and reaction to the killings at UC-Santa Barbara. I read Gift for the same reason as hundreds of other women: A close friend told me to. And there’s a reason the book gets passed along. It’s pushy, it’s overstated, it’s flawed—but it’s a powerful guide to recognizing potential violence and listening to your intuitions.

It’s also a sketch of how relations between the sexes go wrong. I’d give it to girls for their protection; but de Becker also explains clearly why some of the strategies with which well-meaning guys often try to get girls’ attention backfire, because they take place in a context where women fear violent assault. There’s sharp commentary here on how men are conditioned to feel entitled to women’s attention, and how they’re trained to overlook the exact kind of violence and harassment that sparked the #yesallwomen hashtag discussion.

The tone of the book is mostly empathetic and reassuring. De Becker (a security expert who is quite willing to let you know about the presidents, celebrities, and CEOs he’s worked for) is trying to give you permission: to listen to your fear, to say “no” and expect that to be respected, to notice when you’re being hustled rather than trying to talk yourself out of your intuitions. There are a lot of common-sense notes—for example, the person you choose to help you is more likely to be genuinely well-intentioned than the person who seeks you out at a vulnerable moment and offers you his help—and good, clear descriptions of pressure tactics that attempt to extract concessions from others by playing on our dislike of confrontation, our desire to be nice, or our feelings of reciprocity and guilt when someone forces a favor on us.

The book deals with harassment that lacks any kind of sexual edge, e.g. the man who becomes enraged when an employer rejects his business plan, and de Becker suggests that these situations have more in common with domestic violence and other violence against women than it might appear.

You have to get over a certain slickness in the presentation. The thing was clearly written to be a bestseller. De Becker strains to connect grabby stories about presidential assassination attempts to more local-news horrors of stalking and rape. Gift is a page-turner for sure, but you’ll notice that there are no stories where intuition ever turns out to be wrong.

There’s no mention of race in the book, which is important because racism warps our intuitions. De Becker alludes to the fact that cultural messages can misinform our intuitions and lead us to fear the wrong things, but he doesn’t get specific, and the absence of any discussion of racial mistrust really leapt out at me. He uses the decision not to get on an elevator because you don’t like the look of the guy who’s already inside as an example of rational fear, which made me think immediately of that old, sad urban legend about Stevie Wonder’s dog Lady. Casual encounters between white women and black men are shaped not only by the context of violence against women, but by the context of racial violence; we mistrust one another or misread one another’s signals against the backdrop of that violence. Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 18 comments

Building Conservative Prison Reform

Talk of bipartisan prison form has rallied spirits in Washington in recent weeks, and was a topic of hope at CPAC last month. Though American politics may suffer schismatic divides in many issues, maybe—just maybe—we can find agreement here.

But it’s interesting how many are framing the debate—while the left’s motivation is largely viewed as humanitarian, the right’s motives are seen as decidedly pragmatic: prisons are costing us too much. Let’s change that.

Of course we can appreciate this pragmatism, but where is the principle and conscience in our prison reform views? Do conservatives only think in dollar signs?

In a conversation with Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador some weeks ago, he agreed that prison reform makes fiscal sense—but expanded conservative interests into the ethical sphere. He argued that as a Christian and defender of justice, our system ought not consign so many people to rotting in jail. “Because of the fear of crime,” he said, “We keep making it easier and easier for the state to take away your liberty and your freedom … we shouldn’t be throwing people in jail for long periods of time over non-violent offenses.”

Is this something other conservatives should be on-board with? Take solitary confinement, for instance: as conservatives, should we support it—and to what extent is it also deserving of reform?

A Wednesday piece by Lisa Guenther for Aeon provides some good philosophical reasons to oppose solitary confinement. She argues that, since man is (as Aristotle put it) a “social animal,” it is spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically deleterious for him to be alone. We depend on “the other” to undergird and reinforce our experience, our reality. Without that, the soul and mind are cut loose:

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.

We may live in a rather individualistic society—but we never have to experience life in total solitude. “Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone,” writes Guenther. Traditional conservatism opposes individualism—it upholds the important and reforming nature of community. Should this principle extend to our penal system?

It depends, to some extent, on what you think prison is for. Those who believe in “locking up prisoners and throwing away the key” have a good, strong understanding of human depravity. But their belief in redemption is somewhat lacking. This is, perhaps, the largest problem I see with solitary confinement: it leaves absolutely no room for reform of the person. Instead, it turns the soul further toward its inner depravity, and keeps it locked there, away from “the other.” This may keep the individual from harming others—but it also leaves no room for the soul to grow or emerge from its inner prison.

True conservative prison reform should consider the impact such measures have on the human psyche and soul—not merely their monetary cost.


Posted in , , , . Tagged , . 5 comments

Solitary Confinement’s Horrors Laid Bare for Eternity

Solitary confinement cells at Alcatraz Photommo /  cc
Solitary confinement cells at Alcatraz Photommo / cc

Ross Anderson’s vision of how life extension could change prisons is horrific. In Aeon magazine, he interviews Rebecca Roache, an Oxford philosopher investigating how justice can and should change as humans live longer lives. What if you could punish someone for hundreds of years, she wonders. What if you could do it forever?

Eternal damnation, traditionally an ethical problem for theologians, is a practical problem for Roche. If we’re willing to give out life sentences, what will we do when, due to advances in modern medicine, people’s lives become very, very long? If, at that point, we think it’s just to keep people imprisoned for a hundred or a thousand years, why not see if it’s possible to achieve the same effect now with mind altering drugs? The “artificial hell” she describes sounds like it was torn from the pages of Harlan Ellison’s terrifying short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

Ari Shulman of The New Atlantis found the idea so repugnant as to not deserve any added publicity. He wrote:

Let’s be frank about the work these discussions are really doing, how they’re aiming to shape the parameters of discourse and so thought and so action. Like Herman Kahn and megadeath, when transhumanists claim to be responsibly shining a light on a hidden path down which we might otherwise blindly stumble, what they’re really after is focusing us so intently on this path that we forget we could yet still take another.

Anderson has a possible answer to Shulman’s critique at the end of his essay. He writes: “When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us.”

If it’s a horror to make a 10-year sentence feel like an eternity, is it any less so to assign a sentence that lasts a prisoner’s entire life? Particularly for prisoners given over to the penal system in their twenties?

But perhaps the unique horror of Roche’s idea is the way that it would set a prisoner out of synch with his surroundings. After all, a prisoner whose subjective experience of a ten year sentence lasts an eternity, or even the easier-to-imagine one hundred years, can’t be able to communicate with other prisoners or guards. Like a rapidly accelerating astronaut, the prisoner would be moving too fast, according to his internal clock, to belong to a community.

We’ve already sentenced people to that desperately lonely fate without any technology more complicated than four walls and a windowless door. Prisoners in solitary confinement may be running at the same timescale as the rest of us, but the overlap is irrelevant, as they’re allowed almost no fellowship or human contact. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 2 comments

CPAC: The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform

If only Nixon could go to China, then, in the opinion of Grover Norquist, only conservatives can reform the criminal justice system.

The president of Americans for Tax Reform joined Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik to speak against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of a criminal justice system more focused on rehabilitation than simple retribution. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state.”

Kerik has experienced the criminal justice system from both sides, first as a cop, then as an inmate when he pled guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges. He spent three years in jail, but was able to resume his life and his consultancy work when he was freed. That opportunity isn’t available to most felons, he pointed out. In his experience,

I was sentenced to three years, I knew men who were sentenced to a year and a day, but it’s not really a year and a day. A felony conviction is a life sentence. … You can’t punish people for life for making a mistake

Perry agreed with Kerik, saying that the mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines are “a really bad concept.” Long jail stays are costly to the state (which must feed and house criminals) and to the prisoners themselves (who spend more time adrift). He’s worked to shorten sentences where it’s safe to do so, and, as a result, Texas closed two prisons last August.

Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , , . 7 comments

An Unsettling Death in Ohio

It’s difficult to verify whether an execution is botched, since there is no opportunity to interview the victim after the fact, but it’s beginning to look like something went seriously wrong with the execution of a man on death row in Ohio.

Because the state was low on the conventional lethal injection cocktail, the executioner injected Dennis McGuire with a combination of chemicals that the state hoped would be approximately equivalent. But Mr. McGuire’s death took longer than usual and his struggling and choking suggested that the new combination was painful and might have constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As reported in The New York Times, Mr. McGuire’s daughter witnessed her father’s stomach spasm, and his hands contort into fists, “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears.”

There’s no mystery as to why Ohio found itself running low on the traditional three-drug lethal injections. Many of the components of the cocktail are manufactured outside the United States and several international companies have refused to allow their drugs to be shipped to the United States if they will be used to end a life. As a result, the US has been experimenting, most recently in Mr. McGuire’s case, but also by using drug combinations approved to euthanize animals, but not intended for humans.

The real mystery is why Ohio, faced with a shortage of drugs, found it so urgent to put Mr. McGuire to death that they turned to an experimental, poorly-tested combination of drugs. Pharmaceutical companies will make “compassionate use” exemptions to allow patients dying of cancer to take a chance on a drug that might save their lives when all other hope is gone; but why would Ohio find killing on schedule as desperate a need as saving a life?

Both the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole remove a prisoner from ordinary life, and neutralize the threat he or she could pose to fellow citizens. Death is reserved for the gravest crimes, but it is not applied in the spirit of Hammurabi; we do not torture prisoners or try to balance the scales of suffering.

The current lethal injection protocols were inspired by the euthanasia of pets and could be interpreted in the same spirit. Here are the people who couldn’t be saved—who like Old Yeller had somehow become rabidly dangerous—and who we needed to let go, since a cure was out of our reach. But that peaceful image is contradicted by the medical reality of the effects of the injection.

The normal drug cocktail is intended more for the comfort of the spectators than the victim. One of the component drugs, Pancuronium bromide, is a muscle relaxant. It is meant to hasten death by paralyzing the respiratory muscles, making it impossible to breath. However, the paralysis is not limited to the chest, so the muscle relaxant masks any signs of agony that might alert the observers, as in Mr. McGuire’s case, that something is amiss.

The guillotine looks monstrous and savage, and leaves spectators bespeckled by blood, but is believed to be more merciful to the victim and is even favored by the inventor of the three-drug legal injection. Mr. McGuire’s uncomfortable death exposes the illusion that we can usher criminals out of this world simply and peacefully. If we design our execution protocols to obscure the reality of the death we are inflicting, we must ask whether we can honestly endorse a sentence we can’t stand to see unveiled.

Posted in . 25 comments

How the Right and Left Are Revising “Tough on Crime”

America has 5 percent of the world’s population but one-fourth of its prisoners. Nearly one-third of Americans are under correctional facilities’ control at a yearly cost of $60 billion. Imprisonment has grown 400 percent over the past twenty years, the great majority for non-violent crimes. And two-thirds of criminals are back in jail for similar crimes three years after they are released. Our current correctional policy is a national shame and it simply does not work.

Both Edwin Meese and Eric Holder, the attorneys general for presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have criticized this status quo. So have uber-liberal E.J. Dionne Jr. and New Right founder Richard Viguerie. The American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree. Holder’s plea to limit sentencing for non-violent offenders can be questioned coming from one who is otherwise criminalizing new civil procedures and is blunt that his motivation comes primarily from the “shameful” fact that black male perpetrators receive longer sentences than whites. Likewise, while calling for bipartisan agreement, Dionne also emphasized the need for gun control and ending “stop and frisk” laws, a sure means to derail agreement. Caution is called for but the fact that both left and right have expressed doubts is significant.

Even Dionne concedes the crisis began in the 1960s when an “anything goes” leftist counterculture romanticized illegal behavior as glorious acts of self-fulfillment and independence, all beamed to the public by a sympathetic media and popular culture. A liberal Supreme Court responded with decisions expanding criminal rights, limiting confinement and the death penalty, and restricting police response. Crime exploded with murder and willful manslaughter doubling from 5.1 per 100,000 population in 1960 to 10.2 by 1980. The people responded by demanding a narrowing of rights and tougher penalties. The politicians complied.

The right became identified with “tough on crime” even though the leading voice of this frustration was President Richard Nixon who was anything but conservative in most of what he did, overseeing large increases in welfare spending, environmental regulation, racial preferences, and even wage and price controls. More principled conservatives supported Nixon’s program out of outrage that the Supreme Court had acted so arbitrarily by overriding Congress, the Executive, and the states without the least consideration of public opinion. As the right gained politically for supporting tougher policing and punishment, the more pragmatic left led by then Senator Joe Biden claimed equal toughness on crime by applying the death penalty and longer sentencing to many less violent matters. Tough-on-crime turned bipartisan.

Conservatives began having second thoughts as laws exploded to criminalize vast new areas of social life. Today there are 4,000 federal laws elaborated by 300,000 national regulations with thousands more at the state and local levels. Even lawyers do not know the law outside their own narrow field. Most of the additions were for nonviolent offenses, now representing 90 percent of federal prisoners. Violent crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, rape, and battery are widely acknowledged as the most serious, with the guilty being rightly placed where they cannot hurt society again. But imprisonment for non-violent crime is another matter—especially considering that a 2009 Associated Press study found that 60,000 inmates were sexually assaulted that year. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 23 comments

Global Slavery Index: Measuring Millions

Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves and well-known human trafficking expert, first estimated there to be 27 million slaves worldwide. This was an approximation offered in his 1999 book Disposable People. Since then, the topic of human trafficking has garnered international attention—yet for the past 14 years, the estimated number of slaves worldwide rested at Bales’ original approximation. But now, with a team of researchers at the Walk Free Foundation, Bales has introduced a new number: 29.8 million. The new “Global Slavery Index 2013” seeks to measure international slavery and human trafficking, and to provide informational tools for institutions fighting the problem.

Two potential weaknesses of such a report lie in its definition (how broad or specific it is, how easy to measure) and its methodology: how does one measure the global population of slaves worldwide, when slavery is an illegal and clandestine activity? The report’s authors explain their methodology, which focused primarily on secondary collection (via both governmental and non-governmental reports) and representative random sample surveys. Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, told The Guardian, “Measuring a hidden crime is very challenging, but there are efforts to measure domestic abuse and drug trafficking. A lot of it boils down to taking the best data on reported issues and then looking at the scale of the unreported or ‘dark’ problems.”

The index’s definition of slavery and human trafficking has received some skepticism. Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society at Oxford, told The Guardian this report gathers “unjust situations” around the world and labels them as “slavery.” “You have a definitional problem, everything depends on the definition and if you use tricky words like ‘forced’, you are already straying into difficult territory,” she said. Here is an excerpt from the report’s definition section:

In 2013, modern slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names. Whether it is called human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (a category that includes debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children including in armed conflict) victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex, or the thrill of domination … The chains of modern slavery are not always physical – sometimes escalating debts, intimidation, deception, isolation, fear or even a ‘marriage’ that is forced on a young woman or girl without her consent can be used to hold a person against their will without the need for locks or chains.

One can see Anderson’s point. Not only does this definition include a plethora of hidden, illegal criminality—it also includes criminality across a broad variety of platforms: the trafficking of persons across borders, private commercial labor, sex slavery, child soldier kidnappings, and forced marriages. Also, from reading Bales’ books and a variety of other books on the subject, I have learned “coercive labor” situations often do involve pay. But they involve pay in ridiculously minuscule amounts, offset by mountains of employer-determined debt. Thus, the “bondage” described is of a tricky and hidden nature.

The report’s definition is not necessarily wrong. It is good to have some broad (albeit sketchy) statistics on the issue. But Grono himself admitted “the data is not that strong; we want to be open about this. If a government says they don’t agree [with the data], we will say great, let’s work with a national statistics office to do a study across the country to try and analyse the scale of the problem.”

While child and forced marriage are awful human rights abuses, should they be included in the Global Slavery Index? Perhaps so—but consider, we now have a conglomeration of commercial, domestic, and sexual exploitation in the same dataset. How does one begin to parse a number so large? The index’s inclusion of basic law information for the top 10 worst countries in the index could be helpful—if one fights trafficking in Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan or India. But this is a limited contribution.

This is not meant to be harsh—the report’s authors are working for a noble cause. But one hopes they can improve the index with time. Perhaps a next step would be to specify data according to definitional groupings. What if one was to apportion the numbers for each nation according to commercial, domestic, and sexual slavery (perhaps another category for child soldiers, as well)? It would require more work, of course, but this division would allow for more practical data offerings. 29.8 million is a horrid and shocking number. But it is also, unfortunately, a rather useless one at this point.


Posted in , , , , . Tagged , , , , . 4 comments
← Older posts