Friday, February 05, 2010

Whitey Knows Best

This is Laura Silsby. She's a member of a Baptist Church in Idaho and the ringleader of a kidnapping ring.

That's what the Haitians say, anyway.

What's known for sure is that on Saturday January 30th, she and nine other members of her church were arrested at the Haitian/Dominican border with a busload of 33 Haitian children that she and her group claimed were orphaned by the earthquake. They had no documentation saying they were legally empowered to do such a thing, and, in fact, few to none of the children appear to actually be orphans (none of the ones old enough to speak have said they are, and the relatives who gave them to the Americans say that the missionaries said they'd be taken to a better place).

A couple of days ago, they had a hearing, at which, apparently, they fully expected to be released. They were, apparently, surprised and dismayed when they were not.

"We simply wanted to help the children. We petition the court not only for our freedom but also for our ability to continue to help," said Silsby.

Although nine of the ten really didn't know they were doing anything wrong, at least according to their lawyer Edwin Coq, Silsby, the leader and organizer of the expedition, did. "I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out. They were naive. They had no idea what was going on and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border," Coq said. "But Silsby did."

While it strains credulity to believe that anyone could think that you could transport undocumented children across an international border with no justification but the goodness in your heart, it seems that that is the case, at least as far as concerns Silsby's nine accomplices. Chalk it up to that out-and-proud strain of American ignorance that seems to go hand-in-hand with Christian Evangelicalism and residence in the reddest of red states. It seems ludicrous to me that anyone would think that that was okay, but I'm sure to the nine people sitting in jail with Laura Silsby that Christian charity was all the justification they needed, and that the notion of having to file any paperwork was far too secular a concern to be bothered with.

Either that, or perhaps they suffered the typical American disdain for the sovereignty of other nations. After all, Haiti is so messed up, and they're Americans, after all. Who are the Haitians to hold them accountable to the law of the land?

In the end, what I suspect the most was that it simply never occurred to them. That the habit of disrespect was so deeply ingrained that they figured they were above the law because they were doing the Lord's work. Never mind how deeply disdainful it is to go to another country and assume that the law doesn't apply to you because you are American, nor how these folks (or anybody, really) might react if someone from somewhere else were to come here in the wake of a natural disaster and try and decamp with three dozen American kids. I mean, what if, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a bunch of Canadians came down, scooped up a busload of "orphans," and tried to take them to an orphanage in Mexico? How do you suppose these folks might react? Probably not well. Nor should they.

But reflection and reciprocity of respect are hardly the hallmarks of modern American Christianity. Nor are they the hallmarks of anyone who's convinced that they're in the right.

Nonetheless, I think we can probably safely say that, of the ten American missionaries arrested, nine of them had their hearts in the right place, and wanted only to do some good in the world, which was laudable, albeit misguided.

But Laura Silsby, well, that's a different story, from what I've read and gathered. According to her lawyer, at least, she knew that what they were doing was illegal. The others appear to have been genuinely unaware of it, but not her. She knew going in that they were breaking the law, and not only decided to do it anyway, but led nine hapless innocents along with her to a Haitian jail.

I suspect that she, too, thought that whatever good they were trying to do outweighed both the law of the land she was in and the respect it was due. But the way she went about it all, the lies and deceptions, not only to her nine followers but apparently also to the parents of the children, the authorities in Haiti, and the International Press, obviates any good that she might have thought she was doing. It's the disrespect, the gut-deep certainty that she (as an American, or Christian, or whatever it is that makes her feel like she's in a position to make these decisions) was in the right, and that the dictates of decency and the law took second place to that intuitive certainty of her own rightness.

That's the real issue I have here. Not that these people were trying to do what they perceived as good. Or even that Laura Silsby was trying to do what she perceived as good. It's that gut-level certainty of their own rightness and righteousness, so certain that it overrides any other considerations, that I find so disturbing. These people talked parents into giving up their children and tried to whisk them away to another country, without even being bothered to check and see if what they were doing was legal, because they were so sure they were in the right.

And that's the real problem. This notion that when you're in the right, then you suddenly have permission to do whatever you feel is necessary to act on that certainty, without taking into consideration such niceties as legality or respect for others that may feel differently from you. It's a dangerous strain in the American character (or, perhaps, in human nature), and taken far enough, you start to believe that the end justifies the means. And once you've gone down that road, there's no limit to the atrocities you can perpetrate.

All of the world's greatest evils have been perpetrated by people who believed that they were in the right, that the thing they served, be it a god or an ideology or a vision of a better tomorrow, gave them permission to do whatever was needful to bring about the world they envision. And while these poor hapless fools in Haiti aren't even close to on a par with history's great monsters, the difference is one of degree, not kind, and it's something to be mindful of, all of us.

That even when you're right, you still have to do the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way.

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