I don’t know if the unsympathetic comments in yesterday’s New York Times article on the three American hikers taken captive by Iranian soldiers in 2009 indicate a widespread sentiment. Regardless, I was troubled to read statements like this one: “I can’t think of a ’cause’ to which I am less likely to contribute than this.”
Rereading the article, I was struck by the lack of context that, perhaps, created a false impression about the circumstances that led to the imprisonment of Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourb (Shourb was released on bail a year ago). Here’s the background that is essential to understanding, and I hope empathizing with, the plight of the three young Americans.
It’s true that the three were simply hiking when they were arrested — but that fact makes them sound like naifs who went on holiday in a combat zone, and that is not the case.
Shane Bauer was already in Iraq as a freelance journalist, writing articles to help Americans understand the complexity of US involvement there. A fluent Arabic speaker who had been covering the Middle East for several years, Shane had just completed an excellent piece of investigative journalism for Mother Jones magazine, documenting how the US was buying the “support” of local sheiks. To write the piece Shane had traveled to Anbar province, the most dangerous place in Iraq. It was the sort of calculated risk investigative journalists — at least, the best of them — must take all the time. You can’t write stories like that from the safety of the Green Zone.
In stark contrast to Anbar, Kurdistan was (and is) the safest region of Iraq for coalition forces, with no major battles, and, it appears from news accounts, no combat deaths at all. Iraq is a large and diverse country, with levels of violence differing enormously by region. For an Arabic-speaking journalist and a teacher (Sarah Shourd) based in the Middle East, a vacation in Kurdistan was a reasonable choice.
Their friend and former classmate, Josh Fattal, had just finished a six-month stint as a fellow with the International Honors Program, teaching sustainability in China, India, and Africa. A few days in Kurdistan with his Middle East-based friends would not have reasonably set off a red light.
Finally, it is important to note that the three did not, on their own, cross into Iran. Iranian soldiers summoned them. Rather than run from the group of armed men, the three hikers approached, and only then were told they had just crossed the unmarked border — and only because they had followed the soldiers’ instructions. What’s more, whether or not the solders were on the Iranian side of the border has not been established.
Cynics will likely not be swayed by these facts, but for those who blamed the three for their own imprisonment only because the media has not provided enough context, this information may make a difference.
At any rate: here’s hoping that within a few days Josh and Shane will be back home with friends and family where they belong — and able to answer critics on their own.