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Kevin P. QuinnAugust 18, 2008
A Crime So Monstrousby By E. Benjamin SkinnerFree Press. 352p $26

There is shocking news from the journalist E. Benjamin Skinner: slavery is very much alive in our day. A 1999 study estimated that there were then 27 million slaves worldwide. This claim motivated Skinner to infiltrate trafficking networks and slave trades in Godforsaken places and interview the slaves themselves and often their traffickers. What he uncovered and presents here, in first-person narrative, is child slavery in Haiti, sex trafficking in Romania, debt bondage in India and forced domestic servitude in our own country. He need not exaggerate the heinous details of life as a modern-day slave; the agony that Skinner documents in stories of individual slaves is, if anything, understated here. But it loudly and appallingly speaks for itself.

There is, however, more to A Crime So Monstrous than tragic personal testimonies of modern-day slaves. It is also a sobering political tale about the contemporary abolitionist movement and its influence on America’s antislavery strategy, especially during the Bush administration. Strong personalities, fragile coalitions and quarrels over how to define slavery characterize Skinner’s narrative. Though several more familiar public figures have minor roles, the stars here are Michael Horowitz and John Miller. Described as a “hard-hitting neoconservative insider” from Washington’s Hudson Institute who had assembled a predominantly evangelical coalition with significant foreign policy clout, Horowitz recruited Republican lawmakers in the late 1990s to sponsor legislation on sex trafficking alone. Democrats protested and won the fight to use a more inclusive definition of human trafficking in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

But this political battle raised a fundamental question: What is a slave? The various answers continue to muddle the debate over modern-day slavery. For Skinner, “a slave is someone who is forced to work, through fraud or threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.” This definition seems reasonable. But few then, in 2000, or even now would agree with it. Horowitz and many conservative Christians persist in arguing that the only slaves are prostitutes, and all prostitutes are slaves; for them, organized commercial sex is the only form of human trafficking worthy of America’s attention.

In his day, John Miller disagreed with this cramped and circular logic. After serving as a moderate Republican representative from Washing-ton for eight years, in 2003 Miller was appointed director of the State Depart-ment’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Per-sons. As America’s “antislavery czar” for almost four years, he was the administration’s most passionate abolitionist, defining slavery broadly to include, for example, large-scale debt bondage in India. That slavery survived in a free market democracy like India mattered little to State Department officials, and Miller’s battle to sanction India ultimately failed. This was a true measure of America’s abolitionist intent, and Miller soon resigned as a defeated and physically broken man.

Skinner sides with Miller in his broad understanding of slavery, and so laments the Bush administration’s gradual adoption of Horowitz’s “exclusive, hard-line prohibitionist focus on prostitution.” I agree with Skinner: this is a deeply flawed antislavery strategy that leaves too many modern-day slaves neglected. To make this point and to haunt us all, Skinner leaves the reader with a final slave story involving involuntary servitude in the United States.

The story is about Williathe Narcisse. After her mother died of AIDS in Haiti, Williathe became a child slave at age six in the house of a wealthy Port-au-Prince family. Three years later, a sister of the house mistress, an American citizen living in Miami, hired a human smuggler to bring Williathe into the United States. She entered the country through Miami International Airport. Since this was prior to both the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, customs officials did not give Williathe a second look. She was now a slave in greater Miami, living in a gated community of $400,000 houses.

But this is not unusual. Skinner notes that “traffickers turn up to 17,500 humans into slaves on American soil each year.” Nor, tragically, is Williathe’s sad tale of physical abuse and violent rape unusual. What might give us some hope is her eventual rescue from slavery, largely facilitated by a phone friend to whom Williathe gradually revealed her dire situation, and her school principal, whose perseverance with initially unresponsive public authorities changed Williathe’s life. Still, this hope should be tempered; because slavery in the past was so hard to prove, prosecutors often relied on companion charges to secure convictions. Here, the remaining female defendant who had not fled the country pled guilty in June 2004 to harboring an illegal alien.

Can’t the judicial system do better? With the 2000 T.V.P.A. in force, federal prosecutions of domestic slavery have increased dramatically, but “America has liberated less than 2 percent of its modern-day slaves.” This is sobering news.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a former slave, Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947). Born a Muslim in Sudan, she was kidnapped into slavery as a young child, sold and resold in the markets of Khartoum, and eventually bought by the Italian consul there. While still a slave, though treated kindly by her owner, she was taken to Italy and was entrusted to the Canoissan Sisters in Venice. During her time with the Sisters she became a Catholic and decided to enter religious life. Because she had come of age, this decision, which Italian law validated, was honored; and she began 50 years of saintly religious life marked by humble and loving service. Mother Bakhita—whose name, given to her by kidnappers, means “fortunate one”—was indeed very fortunate. Less so were most of the slaves Skinner found in bondage on four continents.

While this book challenges us to get our hands dirty in pressing for comprehensive abolition of slavery, it may be good also to pray to St. Josephine to intercede for Sudan, our own country and the rest of the world where so much slavery still exists.











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