To Critics of the Three American Hikers Taken Captive by Iran

The Three Hikers, Josh, Sarah and Shane

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.

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5 thoughts on “To Critics of the Three American Hikers Taken Captive by Iran

  1. Whenever I read criticism of imprisoned American hikers Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, I am struck by both the mean spirit in which the comments are made, but more importantly, the short-sighted judgment apportioned to them.

    To snap, “it serves them right for hiking in a dangerous area” ignores that fact that Sarah, Shane and Josh are three young widely-traveled, well-read, thoughtful journalists and teachers who certainly have had and will continue to have the capacity to educate and positively influence thousands of people around the world.

    To their credit, Sarah, Shane and Josh were living in the Middle East, a region the U.S. has placed at the center of its foreign policy but one which most Americans would prefer to avoid and about which are largely under-educated and misinformed. By living and traveling in Syria, Iraq and the area of Kurdistan in which they were hiking prior to their arrest, they were learning much about the region, presumably with the intention of sharing their knowledge and understanding with others.

    These three are the kind of people America and the world need more of — intelligent, compassionate, inquisitive, brave, and open-minded travelers, writers and teachers. The fact that they had the misfortune of straying too close to or being lured across an unmarked border in now way merits disparaging or dismissive comments or cold-hearted, snarky remarks.

    Their unfortunate roles as unwitting pawns in a protracted international power-play is, in fact, a reflection of the dangers stemming from more than three decades of severed diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States. The needlessly lengthy and indefensible imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal is not a reason to dismiss or criticize them, but evidence of the profound failure of both American and Iranian diplomacy and leadership and a testament to why we need more people like these three.

  2. That’s terrible that anyone would jest this as being a silly cause- the critique needs to put themselves into such an unlikely and terrible situation prior to passing judgement on anyone, least of all these poor guys who are stuck in such a terrible place for an ungodly amount of time over something this trivial. We are keeping them both in our daily thoughts.

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