Stockholm Syndrome From Tehran

Debra J. Saunders

9/25/2011 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engineered the release last week of two American hikers serving eight-year prison terms on trumped-up espionage charges. He may have thought the release would make him seem more humane, but the $1 million bail-for-freedom deal makes Tehran look like Somali pirates, grabbing innocent tourists, holding them hostage and then releasing them for ransom.

So why did released hiker Shane Bauer say the following upon his release? "Two years in prison is too long, and we sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America (emphasis added) and Iran."

The moral-equivalent rhetoric may have worked when Bauer was a peace and conflict studies major at the University of California, Berkeley, but one country ginned up phony espionage charges to use him and his companions as political pawns -- that's Iran -- and the other country doesn't imprison critics because of what they say or use violence to quell dissent.

The nightmare began in July 2009 when Bauer, friend Josh Fattal and Bauer's girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Americans have wondered how they could be so foolhardy that they mistakenly crossed into Iran. Shourd, a self-described "teacher-activist-writer," says that there were no signs indicating the Iraq-Iran border near a popular waterfall and that the hikers crossed into Iran after an armed soldier summoned them to walk toward him.

Upon receipt of $500,000, Iran released Shourd last year.

At the time of their arrest, Bauer and Shourd were living in Damascus, in the bosom of Bashar Assad's Syria. They have shared a professed love of Middle Eastern culture. They also shared some blind spots.

Shourd, for example, wrote that in Yemen, interaction between the sexes is minimal, absent marriage, and 99 percent of women never leave the house unveiled. But: "The separation of sexes is widely understood as an attempt to protect women, and I have to admit, the streets do feel safe. Men leave you alone as long as you are covered; in a bizarre way it is less of a hassle being a woman here than anywhere I've ever been."

Newsweek lists Yemen as one of nine countries that are "the worst places to be a woman," because domestic violence is not illegal and there is no legal recognition of spousal rape.

A year before Shourd wrote about how safe she felt in Yemen, 10-year-old Nujood Ali went to a Sanaa courtroom to ask a judge to release her from an arranged marriage to an older man who beat her. Other girl brides came forward with their horror stories. A Sanaa University study found that more than half of Yemeni girls are married before they turn 18.

Shourd never quite comes out and says that she thinks that as Iraq War-opposing liberals, she and her friends should be treated differently than other people in the Middle East. But surely, she noticed that she was an unmarried 31-year-old woman and traveling with her 27-year-old boyfriend throughout the Arabian Peninsula, among people who would not tolerate the same behavior from their own.

Unjust imprisonment? Bauer should talk to a 10-year-old bride.

Before Bauer and Fattal's release, reader Dan Brown of San Rafael, Calif., sent me a note urging me to write about the San Francisco Chronicle's extensive coverage of the hikers compared with the minimal coverage of Alan Gross. Cuba sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison for illegally bringing satellite phone equipment to Jewish groups in Havana.

Now, I know that the hikers garner media coverage in the Bay Area, where I live, because they went to school here. Parents here look at the travelers and think of their own kids. (Yes, here age 29 is still childhood.) And Bauer has written for the Chronicle.

Gross is from Maryland. He's 62, and he crossed the Castro government. It's no contest.

But Brown had a point when he wrote that Bauer and Shourd "lived in Syria, enjoying privileged lives," different from the lives of ordinary Damascenes. Yet instead of criticizing Syria's brutal dictator, Bauer wrote articles hitting America, and Shourd wrote a piece that criticized not Assad, but Israel. Gross, Brown wrote, worked for human rights. Bauer, Fattal and Shourd just "took a hike."

It is my sincere wish that Bauer, Fattal and Shourd return to the United States and realize what a great country America is. Iran arrested them. Iran framed them. Iran jailed them.

The United States, in contrast, gave them a university education that trained them to blame America first. Or, after serving time in prison -- for hiking -- coequally with Iran.