Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Moral Universe is Gray

On January 7, 2016 prosecutors and police in King County, Washington held press conference to announce they had broken up a ring of "human traffickers"
Washington officials unveiled a perfect storm of horrors: Women lured from South Korea under false pretenses and "held against their will" at local brothels. A website where deviant men promoted and reviewed these enslaved women. "Because they had money," said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg at a televised press conference, these men "gained access to sexually abuse these vulnerable young women, then put their energies toward a campaign to encourage many more men to do the same."

"The systematic importation of vulnerable young women for sexual abuse, exploitation, and criminal profiteering has been going on for years and it came to a stop this week," Satterberg added. "This is what human trafficking looks like."
But, writes Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in Reason,
It was shocking, scandalous, horrifying. Yet almost none of it is true.
In Brown's version, which is based mainly on documents collected and made public by the police, these Korean women flew to Seattle at their own expense to make money, since on a good day they could clear $1000. The men prosecuted for "enslaving" them provided apartments for them to stay in and use in exchange for $100 of the $300 standard charge, never forced anybody to do anything, and set up a two web sites: one for the prostitutes to meet customers and one for the working girls to ask for references for new customers and warn each other about men who seemed dangerous or creepy.

I invite you to read Brown's whole long piece if you want to form your own opinion of these events. She is a pro-prostitution crusader of sorts, in her way as biased as the prosecutors. The people involved seem skeevier to me than she tries to portray them. But she certainly blows open the whole assertion of an international human trafficking ring, and proves to my satisfaction that the police made crazy exaggerations in their accusations.

Many people have a deep need to see the world in black and white moral terms. They want criminals to be horrible monsters who do truly terrible things to poor, weak innocents. They want prostitutes to be the slaves of wicked pimps, used only by deeply depraved men; this fits their worldview much better than women looking to make money and "hobbyists" (as they call themselves these days) who are just your neighbors or people you work with. That sort of grayness offends true moralists.

These cops and prosecutors come across as very much on the moralistic side. And I wonder if their extreme reaction to these people had something to do with how involved with it they became during the course of the investigation. One of the detectives hung out on a web site called The Review Board for years:
Off and on for two years, Detective Hillman would post lengthy and detailed descriptions of alleged sexual encounters with sex workers to TRB. These included the same sorts of statements defendants have been arrested for posting, such as pleas for others to visit a particular woman so she would stick around, info about the screening process for new clients, updates on when a new K-Girl arrived in town, and links to their ads on other websites, like Backpage. (Sample Hillman post: Yoco "is the freight train of sexual energy. ... Her last day is August 23rd, RUN, don't walk, to see her.")
The moralistic preacher who tries to convert the prostitutes he hires (and uses) is a stereotype, but I guess they really exist.

There is profound evil the world, from serial killers to the trainers of suicide bombers. But most crime is just people trying to make an easy buck or get a cheap thrill, and it fits badly with a God vs. Satan view of the world.


Unknown said...

Of course, depending on the case, things can get grayer and grayer, so that you'll never know truth from falsehood. As it is, you actually seem to be favoring a pretty Manichaean scenario in which police and prosecutors run amok looking for sin and finding it where they want to find it. But presumably they got some sort of evidence that they thought would stand up in court . . . Did they interrogate the girls for ten hours until they got what they wanted? In which case your scenario would be reinforced. Or did one or more girls, or other witnesses, have their own motives? Perhaps internal quarrels in the business led to defections and tale-telling . . . or perhaps one house of prostitution is trying to destroy another . . . or perhaps . . .

After all, if prostitutes are women with agency, there's no telling what they might get up to, including deceiving Elizabeth Nolan Brown, or acting in good faith with her, or doing a little of both. And you might never really know.

And then there's the charming psychopath who can make just about anything they do seem morally gray. Not to ignore the rigid legalist who thinks the court system should never admit a mistake, because that would undermine people's faith in the system, even if someone has to die.

I suppose my point is there's grayness, but even more there's the limits of human knowledge. And at some point it may be necessary to take a stand, and so be it.

John said...

The big contrast in this case is between what police and prosecutors said in their press conference and what their own documents show; much of Brown's story is based on those documents. And if you read to the end of her story you see that the two men at the center of this ended up getting ridiculously light charges for the leaders of a human trafficking ring, one count each of second degree promoting prostitution; one is likely to get off with time served plus 30 days community service. So they couldn't even make the rest of the county legal system accept their initial version.

Unknown said...

Well, it sounds like these guys fell into a lot of foolish grandstanding. Which is certainly another possibility. There's no accounting for sheer stupidity.