The greatest challenge to the modern abolitionist movement isn’t the determination of slavers, or the threat of violence against those who would liberate slaves. It isn’t the ponderous, glacial pace of government action, or the corruption of policy through the sausage-making process of legislation or enforcement. It isn’t even the crushing poverty that leaves people so desperate, so hopeless that they become vulnerable to exploitation. All these things contribute to a vibrant slave trade in our modern world that holds more people in its clutches than at any other time in history. Even compared with these daunting barriers, the greatest challenge to the modern abolitionist movement is apathy. Speaking of slavery in the early days of the Civil War, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “As long as you know of it, you are particeps criminis.” In his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, E. Benjamin Skinner makes sure we are all particeps criminis, and that we must now act to absolve ourselves.
Skinner started as a skeptic, which is good for his audience. So often, abolitionists introduce their cause to a chorus of “prove it” rather than “what can I do?”. Recently in this forum, a rigorous debate of that nature raged in the comments for my article on Trade as One. Skinner is a print journalist, and well practiced in the careful art of investigative reporting. His is the most well-documented, thorough account of modern slavery available in print today. Basing his work on pioneer modern abolitionist Kevin Bales’ landmark book Disposable People, Skinner presents a heartbreaking account of the worldwide problem of slavery that is meticulously researched. Using Bales’ model, Skinner defines a slave as someone who is forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. If you are yet to be convinced of the existence of slavery, Skinner’s book should be at the top of your reading list. If you are ready to jump into the fray and fight this injustice, Skinner’s book is a great place to start understanding the complexity of the problem.
Skinner takes his readers on a tour of the world, starting with a flight from New York City to Haiti, where he finds someone willing to sell him a child within mere hours. He follows what he calls the ‘New Middle Passage’ by tracing the journey a Romanian woman named Tatiana took at the hands of sex traffickers, and he investigates debt slavery in India through a man named Gonoo and his family’s three generations of enslavement. At every stage of his journey, Skinner lets the people he meets narrate his story. Though his professional tone does not seek to manipulate the reader’s emotions, the stories Tatiana, Gonoo, and the child slave Bill Nathan tell are hard to read without engaging your heart as well as your head. This is not melodrama; it is the life that a surprisingly large population of the world lives, while we are blissfully unaware between checking Facebook on our iPhones and running to Starbucks for a quick jolt.
What makes A Crime So Monstrous such a helpful guide to the crisis of modern slavery, and sets it apart from other books like it, is its dual focus on the people who are enslaved and the people who seek to free them. It contains detailed analysis of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations’ efforts, in their successes and failures. It sifts through the rhetoric and examines the motives of the politicos who took on the cause of abolition. It analyzes the conflict among abolitionists over which form of slavery deserves the most action, and the negative impact of that conflict on the slaves whose cause is less dramatic than others. Sadly, it also chronicles why the most robust abolitionists in our government, John Miller, Michael Gerson, and others, no longer fight the good fight in the halls of power. Skinner’s account is fair, and in some cases encouraging, but reminds the reader that ultimately, the government alone cannot stop this juggernaut of a human rights violation.
And that is why the greatest enemy to abolition is apathy. The global market makes slavery of all kinds profitable, from bonded labor to the sex trade. It is technically illegal in every nation on earth, and yet in any nation on earth (including our own), it exists and is rarely prosecuted. Even established democracies like the US or the UK face incredible difficulty in hunting down traffickers and prosecuting them. And it is abject poverty that is the single greatest factor in determining whether someone is vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers. But, as Skinner notes in the last chapter of his book, “The free market can be the world’s most effective device for ending poverty. If governments and trade organizations enforce the rules of the game, fair markets also can be the world’s best devices for ending slavery.” Government and trade organizations are ultimately mandates from the masses. As long as we ignore slavery, they’re functionally toothless. If the masses mandate that these institutions oppose the enslavement of our fellow men, women and children, they can become mighty tools for the people’s righteous cause.
It’s fitting that Skinner’s title comes from another journalist. In 1847, William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator “This is an act so unnatural, a crime so monstrous, a sin so God-defying, that it throws into the shade all other distinctions known among mankind.” Garrison’s words helped rally antebellum America to the abolitionist cause and the eventual end of legal slavery. A century later, another journalist’s words, if we heed them, can do the same.