Taking a brief break from blogging about humanitarian aid work, here…
I’m sure that many of you were horrified by the account of Ms. Lara Logan, Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS, being attacked and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, now almost three weeks ago. For those who don’t know, Ms. Logan was no newcomer to dangerous and volatile places. This was not her first, nor at first glance, necessarily the most troubling place she’d deployed to in the line of duty. Yet on February 11, things did go horribly wrong for her there. (Here’s the story)
The cacophony of ill-informed opinion on the incident both in mass and social media was truly astounding, and ranged from mildly idiotic noise to full-on over-the-top sexism and racism. I won’t drive traffic to any of those blogs or twitter accounts. Here are a few that I felt treated the issue well.
Then a few days after that, Somali pirates captured and then killed four Americans (Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle) traveling around the world by yacht. These four were not new to sailing and had to have known something about the possibility of being attacked by pirates in the greater Horn of Africa / Red Sea vicinity. (Here’s the story)
Not long after, I found myself embroiled in lively skype and email conversations with @shotgunshack, @itsjina and a few others over how we saw the similarities and differences between the two events. Surely it would be equally inappropriate to blame the victims in either case. Both involved the taking of some level of risk. It seemed there was some similarity. Yet my own initial reaction on hearing of the attack on Lara Logan was moral outrage. While my reaction on hearing of the four Americans being killed by pirates was essentially, “those dumbasses should have known better.”
Fully aware that I now tread on ground that is highly emotional and (perhaps therefore) at times unstable, I’ll share with you for posterity my own thinking on how those two events compare and contrast:
It seems to me that the primary issue is how we perceive, assess, and respond to “risks” and “threats.” Indeed, much of the discussion in the blogosphere around Lara Logans’ situation seemed to center on what “risk”, in particular means. Drawing on what I’ve learned in some of the security and risk management training that I’ve been subjected to at different times, it seems that even outside of the discussion of collective action turning violent and then sexual, the natures of the threats of rape and of abduction/death by pirates are fundamentally different.
The threat of rape, it seems, is almost always there but diffuse and inspecific. Rape can happen in a darkened alley, in a persons’ own living room, on a subway, totally out in the open… And it seems that what escalates the threat of rape into actual commission of the act (especially in a so-called “mob” environment) comes down to some tough-to-pin down, ethereal elements of context and opportunity. Someone can walk through the same stairwell every day with no problem, but then one day something changes – and rape happens.
What I imagine this meant for Lara is that when she first went into Tahrir Square she was not more at-risk of being raped than normal. The facts about her – woman, attractive, etc. – as so many others have argued, were immaterial. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that attractive Western women move unmolested through that same space all the time. Equally immaterial were the facts of who did the assaulting. I don’t imagine there are any statistics on this, but I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of Egyptian men (and more broadly, Muslim men, for that matter) go through their entire lives without ever assaulting anyone.
What was important is that in that place at that time the context changed. Ms. Logan was either unaware or unable to get away. She was caught in an terrible “perfect storm” and her being assaulted was the result.
Unlike the threat of rape which seems to condense and evaporate, often unpredictably, from what I understand the threat of piracy near the Horn of Africa is highly specific and constant. Everyone knows the pirates are there and that they prey on everything from privately owned sailing yachts to ocean-going freighters. I’ll bet someone smarter than me could even calculate the risk numerically (maybe Texas In Africa already has…): “Sail a boat between the ports of Aden and Mocha and you run a 72% chance of being attacked by pirates…”
And to me, that is a much more important difference than who went for work versus who was on vacation, who was attractive or not, who was male or female. Lara went into her situation with no reason to assume that things would go as they ended up going. From what I understand, from a security/risk perspective, it truly was random. She did not take more risk than normal (she’s been in more volatile places), and she didn’t do anything particularly wrong from a security perspective. She was quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
[Personal note: Many of us have jobs which involve going into dangerous places, and while glamorizing it (being an “adrenaline junkie”) is famously problematic, so is refusing to act. Your job is what it is and you do it. As an aid worker, I personally reject outright the notion that Lara Logan should have stayed home, or that she was somehow unsuitable for danger zone reporting because she is female.]
Whereas the yachters knew that they very specifically ran the risk of being attacked in that place at that time. They made an informed decision, took their chances and paid the price.
Did anyone deserve what they got? Of course not. No one – no one – deserves to be raped or killed. In a better world neither event would have happened. My assessment of what happened in Tahrir Square is now more nuanced than before: It was a terrible event, but at the end of the day Ms. Logan couldn’t have known better. However my assessment of what happened in the Indian Ocean between Oman and Somalia is still pretty much the same: Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle didn’t deserve to die. But they absolutely should have known better.