Week Six

A Crime So Monstrous

Read A Crime So Monstrous by Ben Skinner, as an exercise in information gathering. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on human trafficking, as he documents his journey to learn more about the new slave trade. It began as a journalistic endeavor: “Before I met those slaves and those traffickers, I told myself that I would observe, not engage. When I began the five-year process of investigation and writing, I intended to make a work of journalism, not of advocacy” (288). But it became a campaign to bring freedom.

As Skinner writes his narrative, he tells the stories of individuals he meets—victims, survivors and perpetrators. In one piercing encounter, he recalls a conversation with Muong, a survivor of slavery in Sudan, who says: “I assume you come from a place where there is an idea that humans have rights. Why does no one care about our slavery here?” (103). It is a question that cuts to the core for all of us who live in a place of privilege—do we care? And what are we doing about it?

What set Skinner’s book apart for me is the way he also brings elements of history and politics to bear, showing how human trafficking fits into the bigger picture—after all, I lean macro. Thus, for example, he observes how over the last two decades, “beginning in the 1990s, human trafficking metastasized faster than any other form of slave-trading in history. As many as 2 million people left their homes and entered bondage every year. Some crossed international borders; many did not. Human beings surpassed guns as the second most lucrative commodity for crime syndicates of all sizes, netting around $10 billion annually” (132). Moreover, he pulls back the covers on the politics involved: the government wrangling and foot-dragging, the pressure to appease other governments, the failure to see poverty as a contributing factor, the lack of value placed on ending slavery—“On average, the Bush administration spent as much money in two days to free Iraqis as it did in six years to free slaves” (260).

One of the main purposes for the book was to define slavery—Skinner doesn’t shy away from applying this term, not to devalue the enslavement that took place in America’s history, but to highlight the extent of the atrocity and inhumanity of the modern phenomenon. “What is a slave? In this book, a slave is someone who is forced to work, through fraud or threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence. I did not meet one Washington policymaker—out of two dozen that I interviewed—who could give me so concise a definition” (289). I suppose, as someone who is considering Washington policymaker as a potential vocation, this is another good challenge.

Skinner ends the book with yet another challenge: “Slavery today is much less visible than it [once was], so it isn’t hard to pretend that it is long dead. In your mind, if you like, you can imagine it consigned to history books. I wish I could do the same” (295).

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