Brittany Griner, the WNBA superstar, has finally been sentenced by a Russian court for illegal drug possession. Absent the intervention of other agents and factors, she will serve nine years and six months in a Russian prison. She’s already been detained in the country since her arrest in February. It is obvious, however, that the tale is far from over.
The announcement of the tought sentence prompted President Biden to emit a typical bit of futile grandstanding, as he tweeted, “…Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.” It is pretty hard to be more blatantly futile, disingenuous and incompetent in a tweet than that. Biden doesn’t know that she was “wrongfully detained;” all indications are that she violated Russian law. “It’s unacceptable” implies that the United States won’t accept it, but as Biden well knows, the U.S. can’t and won’t do anything to force Griner’s release. Calling on a foreign nation to ignore its laws and law enforcement system to give an arrogant foreign violator a Get Out of Jail Free card is about as serious as ordering a foreign country to use Pig Latin, but that’s our Joe: talks tough, looks pathetic. The last part of the manifesto is especially silly. If being reunited with friends and family were a justification for releasing convicted criminals, then we should empty our own prisons. (To be fair, that is what a lot of Joe’s supporters want to see happen…a lot of Democratic district attorneys, too.)
An earlier Ethics Alarms comment on this case [Item #2] closed with this:
An arrogant, greedy, foolish celebrity, male or female, who violates a foreign country’s laws should be treated by our news media and the government with exactly the same level of attention as a retired sanitation worker from Newark who does the same, massively stupid thing.
Now that we know the full extent of the mess Griner has gotten herself into, just how sympathetic should we be? Over at the (excellent) conservative blog Victory Girls, Nina Bookout writes, “I honestly don’t have any sympathy for Brittany Griner.” That seems unethically harsh to me. Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are important ethical values. She is a young woman whose career and freedom are now in jeopardy, and, by U.S. cultural standards, the price she is facing for a series or reckless, arrogant mistakes in judgment seems excessive. As satisfying as it can be to see rich celebrities brought down by hubris, complete callousness regarding a case like Griner’s approaches cruelty.
Still, she knowingly defied a State Department warning not to travel to Russia, and did so for money, although she is hardly destitute. She carried with her substances that she knew were illegal in Russia, and that she knew carried serious criminal penalties. Her explanations and excuses strain credulity even if one is not a Russian judge: for example, a U.S. doctor has no authority to waive a Russian drug law, but Griner tried to use a letter from her physician justifying medical marijuana use by the athlete to get around her illegal possession charges. Now she is causing an international incident, and it may take the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to persuade Russia to return Griner to our shores.
Bout, an illegal arms dealer whose nickname is “The Merchant of Death,” was convicted by a jury in 2011 of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He’s about half-way through a 25 years prison sentence. It is not unlikely, if Bout has to be traded for Griner, that her foolishness will be indirectly responsible for many deaths.
I still have to conclude that she deserves our sympathy and compassion.
But not too much.