To be a moral witness is perhaps the highest calling of journalism, and in this unforgettable, highly readable account of contemporary slavery, author Benjamin Skinner travels around the globe to personally tell stories that need to be told -- and heard.
As Samantha Power and Philip Gourevitch did for genocide, Skinner has now done for modern-day slavery. With years of reporting in such places as Haiti, Sudan, India, Eastern Europe, The Netherlands, and, yes, even suburban America, he has produced a vivid testament and moving reportage on one of the great evils of our time.
There are more slaves in the world today than at any time in history. After spending four years visiting a dozen countries where slavery flourishes, Skinner tells the story, in gripping narrative style, of individuals who live in slavery, those who have escaped from bondage, those who own or traffic in slaves, and the mixed political motives of those who seek to combat the crime.
Skinner infiltrates trafficking networks and slave sales on five continents, exposing a modern flesh trade never before portrayed in such proximity. From mega-harems in Dubai to illicit brothels in Bucharest, from slave quarries in India to child markets in Haiti, he explores the underside of a world we scarcely recognize as our own and lays bare a parallel universe where human beings are bought, sold, used, and discarded. He travels from the White House to war zones and immerses us in the political and flesh-and-blood battles on the front lines of the unheralded new abolitionist movement.
At the heart of the story are the slaves themselves. Their stories are heartbreaking but, in the midst of tragedy, readers discover a quiet dignity that leads some slaves to resist and aspire to freedom. Despite being abandoned by the international community, despite suffering a crime so monstrous as to strip their awareness of their own humanity, somehow, some enslaved men regain their dignity, some enslaved women learn to trust men, and some enslaved children manage to be kids. Skinner bears witness for them, and for the millions who are held in the shadows.
In so doing, he has written one of the most morally courageous books of our time, one that will long linger in the conscience of all who encounter it, and one that -- just perhaps -- may move the world to constructive action.
Today there are more slaves than at any time in history, according to journalist Skinner's report on current and former slaves and slave dealers. Skinner's travelogue-cum-indictment focuses most sharply on Haiti, Sudan, Romania and India, and is interspersed with a detailed account of the work of John Miller, director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, or America's antislavery czar. Skinner reiterates that sexual trafficking is only one component of slavery, but devotes the bulk of this book (when it is not following Miller's State Department career) to this issue. The text teeters toward the travelogue, taking the reader to Dubai's most notorious brothel and Skinner's adventures in pos[ing] as a client to talk to women... [or] as an arms dealer to talk to traffickers. Nevertheless, Skinner's story merits reading, and not just because the cause is noble and the detail often fascinating, such as the moral complications of Christian Solidarity International's redemption or purchase of 85,000 slaves' freedom. Skinner's account of the internal workings of the State Department and the deep links to faith-based antislavery groups and their special interests is seriously newsworthy and, at times, moving. (Mar.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 10, 2008
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Excerpt from A Crime So Monstrous by E. Benjamin Skinner
Imagine that Robert E. Lee's staff officer had not lost his three cigars in 1862. Imagine that the general's Antietam battle plans, which were wrapped around those cigars, hadn't wound up in Union hands. Alternatively, imagine that George McClellan hadn't finally used the providential intelligence to stop the rebels in the bloodiest battle in American history. Imagine that a thus disempowered Lincoln was unable to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Imagine that the South had won and spread slavery to the Western Territories.
Imagine that, eighty years later, Japan limited its racist empire to Asia, rather than attacking Pearl Harbor. Imagine that Hitler, unchecked by the Confederate States of America, rolled back the steady advance of freedom since England abolished the slave trade in 1807.
Imagine, in other words, a world where the ideologies that endorsed slavery still stood.
None of these scenarios happened. And yet: There are more slaves today than at any point in human history.
In his book Disposable People (1999), an unassuming scholar named Kevin Bales claimed that there were then 27 million slaves -- whom he defined as human beings forced to work, under threat of violence, for no pay -- worldwide. His figure was staggering, even when measured against other terrible epochs. At its height under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Gulag held 5 million slaves. The Nazis enslaved 12 million in total, but culled them so rapidly that far fewer were alive at any given time.
The year 1861 was the only one when the total slave population rivaled today. That year, there were 3.8 million slaves in the United States -- a greater number than in the rest of the world combined. In Russia at the time, though most of Europe had abolished slavery, there may have been 23 million serfs. That estimate, from a Bolshevik writer justifying the excesses of the Communist revolution, is deceptive. A serf was a subject, albeit diminished, under law, and often owned property; a slave was himself mere property under law.
Human bondage is today illegal everywhere. But if we accept that one slave exists in a world that has abolished legal slavery, then, if we look closely, we soon must accept that millions of slaves exist.
Bales acknowledges that his figure is far from exact. John Miller, America's antislavery czar, told me, "These victims don't stand in line, Ben, and wait for a census to count them." Bales pleaded for criticism, hoping to be proved wrong. Subsequent regional studies have only buttressed his claim. A detailed, 2005 International Labour Organization report found 10 million forced laborers in Asia alone. Whatever the total number, it was big. And, to me, meaningless.
"The death of one man is a tragedy," Stalin, who knew something about the subject, supposedly maintained. "The death of a million men is a statistic." Hence the first reason for this book. I could not prove the definite number of slaves, and I would not try. But I might show what their slavery meant.
The second reason for paying attention was because my government did. A week before the 2000 election, President Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. For the first time, an American president assumed global abolition as a national burden. The new law called for programs to eradicate slavery, and mandated that the State Department annually rank countries based on their efforts. Tier One was for those showing progress toward abolition. A Tier Three ranking, reserved for reprobate nations that countenanced bondage, could trigger sanctions. John Miller, whose office wrote the report, intended to "name and shame" foreign governments.
"Name and shame." It's a far cry from the nineteenth-century interdictions of the Royal Navy. Over a period of seventy years, 2,000 British sailors died freeing 160,000 slaves.
But the modern American war on slavery was nonetheless historic. Whereas President Lincoln used emancipation to win foreign government support for the Union, President George W. Bush used the nation's strength to win foreign government support for emancipation. John Miller, his knight in the effort, began working on the issue at the same moment I did. Thus, in this book I have woven his years of discovery in with my own.
Three caveats. First, regarding language. For Bales's statistic to mean anything, "slavery" has to mean something. I adopt his definition. I met dozens of people who described themselves as slaves. Their stories were often tragic. Many were child laborers. Many faced terrible abuse. But, in this book, those who failed to meet all of Bales's three criteria -- compelled to work, through force or fraud, for no pay beyond subsistence -- are not slaves.