Saturday, November 24, 2007

How much official outrage should we show?

There have been in the news recently two horrifying news stories involving rape that show how differently the rights of women are viewed in other parts of the world when compared with the United States.

In the first of these cases, a nineteen year old Saudi woman was brutally gang-raped. Initially, she was sentenced to ninety lashes and six months in prison; that's right, SHE was sentenced to this, for the crime of being in a vehicle with an unrelated male (a friend of hers). When she appealed her sentence, it was increased to 200 lashes, for daring to speak out (her lawyer, who spoke to Saudi media about the case, faces disbarment.) Her attackers, while they have been sentenced to prison, initially received sentences of between 10 months and five years; subsequently those have been increased but still they have received much shorters sentences than rapists typically get in the United States.

In the second case, a fifteen year old girl in Brazil who was arrested on suspicion of petty theft was placed in a jail cell with 20 adult male inmates, who raped and tortured her, while the local police ignored her screams for help and kept her there for three weeks, during which time she was burned as well as being raped multiple times. The police then pressured her father to falsify her birth certificate (presumably to claim her age was older than it was) and then threatened to have his paternity rights revoked when he refused to do so.

Both cases have provoked international outrage. The Brazilians have at least acknowleged that there is a problem (especially since the case has led to revelations of other women being put into male prison cells and raped) and they have appointed two commissions to investigate. The Saudis, in contrast, have proven particularly intransigent, justifying their sentencing by saying the woman in the case was involved in 'an illegal relationship.'

Of course, everyone including Presidential candidates have jumped on the cases and condemned them. Then again, it is easy for someone who is simply a candidate to do so, since there are no real consequences for whatever (s)he might say.

But what of the administration which does have to deal with the consequences?

If I were President, I'd be tempted to recall my ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as well as letting Brazil know I'd be keeping a real close eye on their investigation and would expect to see some heads roll. But then maybe it's a good thing I'm not the President.

On the other hand, I've been very, very disappointed at the complete lack of outrage expressed by the Bush administration. Other than some muted statements expressing disappointment they have said pretty much nothing.

First, let's make one thing clear-- there is public outrage (for public consumption) and there is actual outrage (behind the scenes). The textbook example of the difference came just after the Tianenmen Square massacre, when the first Bush administration publicaly expressed shock and anger at the massacre of unarmed demonstrators in the square by the Chinese army, while simultaneously dispatching Brent Scrowcroft to Beijing with a message that the statements were for American public consumption only, and should not be construed otherwise by the Chinese government.

And we well know that both Brazil and especially Saudi Arabia are very important to American foreign policy. We get nearly half of our oil from Saudi Arabia, and they also hold enormous amounts of American debt. So a real sudden and complete break with Saudi Arabia would be a severe, perhaps even deadly blow to the American economy. Like it or not, that is an unquestioned fact, as of today. Brazil doesn't send a lot of oil to the U.S., but with Latin America increasingly hostile to America, and with the most powerful politician in the region arguably Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, America needs Brazil as the dominant economic power in South America to provide a balance to Chavez.

That said, there are two things that the Bush administration should be doing but are not:

1. they should publically, in the STRONGEST terms condemn both sets of rapes. They must make it clear that the way these women were treated by the judicial systems in those countries is repugnant and that as civilized Americans we reject it completely. This is necessary because inasfar as the President speaks for all Americans, we must make it clear as a nation that we won't accept this; if we are as a nation silent on this kind of treatment of victims, do we retain any moral authority at alL?

2. behind the scenes if it is necessary to offer the Saudis a way out of their quandry it should be this: offer to grant the woman, her husband (a man she was engaged to at the time of the rape and who she has since married) and her lawyer (unless they will reconsider the actions they took against him) political refugee status in the United States and suggest that the Saudis commute the sentence to exile (which should be good enough to placate some of the hotheaded fundamentalists at home).

I don't claim to have all the facts about what we should do privately, but publically, to not condemn these actions is to condone them, and I as an American demand that my government condemn them. Because such behavior should never be condoned.

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