WASHINGTON -- When you say slavery, most Americans think about what ended with The Civil War. With relief, we think: That was then.
But slavery is, unfortunately, now.
We call it "human trafficking" these days, an almost innocuous-sounding term, but it is slavery by any other name. And the numbers are stunning. Around the world, as many as 1.1 million human beings, mostly women and children, are "trafficked" across international borders and sold each year into slavery, according to the U.S. State Department.
If one counts all the people forced into servitude -- from farms in India to charcoal mines in Brazil -- the numbers reach into the millions. Even the U.S. has become a major importer of sex slaves, with estimates running between 14,500 and 17,500. Of those, 80 percent are women and half are minors.
Although the U.S. has been monitoring trafficking since 1994 -- and Congress passed a trafficking victims protection act in 2000 -- slavery hasn't seized the American imagination the same way apartheid once did, or as Darfur has in recent years. That may begin to change with two new films -- one a documentary and the other a mainstream film starring Kevin Kline -- that are aimed at disturbing our slumber.
They are effective.
In "Sold," a documentary by former ABC producer Jody Hassett Sanchez, we meet Pakistani boys as young as 3 sold into service as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. We also meet little girls as young as 5 who had been sold as sex slaves.
One of the challenges of modern-day slavery is that good people are often unknowingly complicit. Many of the children featured in the documentary are sold by their impoverished parents, who were promised that their children would have better lives. The reality is something different. Little girls end up as abused prostitutes, while little boys sold as jockeys spend 12 or more hours a day strapped onto the backs of camels, are shocked with metal prods and fed saltwater to prevent their gaining weight.
At a screening here Wednesday, Sanchez told an audience that included U.S. Reps. Mary Bono, R-Calif., and Connie Mack, R-Fla., that she wanted to focus on people who were working to end slavery. She followed three faith-driven people -- a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian from India, Pakistan and Togo, respectively -- who have suffered threats and beatings to save women and children.
Sanchez says she hopes her documentary, which is cinematically beautiful despite the hideous subject, will inspire Americans, especially young people, to take action.
"Trade," which opens in theaters this weekend, is a less hopeful, if equally harrowing, treatment of the same subject. Based on a 2004 New York Times magazine story by Peter Landesman ("The Girls Next Door,"), the movie shines a light on how traffickers operate from Mexico to a stash house in suburban New Jersey.
The story follows Adriana, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped in Mexico City by an organized crime gang, and a naive young Polish woman, who left her country for the false promise of a better life. Terror can't get any worse than what these two endure as they are trundled through barren landscapes, handed off as sexual favors to strangers, and ultimately put up for sale.
A parallel story unfolds as Adriana's 17-year-old brother, Jorge, teams up with Ray, a Texas cop played by Kline, to try to rescue her before she is sold at an online auction.
This is not a fun movie to watch, nor is it likely to improve anyone's opinion of mankind. But it's an important film that makes denial no longer possible. While "Trade" will make you angry, "Sold" will make you want to applaud. Both will make you want to do something.
Ending slavery won't be an overnight fix. You can't throw money at it and make it go away, though a check to the right people will help. Ultimately, slavery is a moral problem that forces confrontation with one's commitment to human dignity.
Put it this way: Once you know that little boys barely out of diapers are sold as camel jockeys, or that little girls are prostituted before they can tie their shoes -- or that any child is peddled to the pedophile with the highest bid -- averting your eyes is not an option.