WASHINGTON – What is a boy’s life worth? The answer may depend on who is asking. It also may matter where the question is being raised.
Officials in Sanford, Florida, initially decided not to arrest neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman after he fatally shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26. This past week, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. Did Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey place a different value on the life of that young black victim than Sanford authorities did? Corey has said that “the search for justice has brought us to this moment” when she announced the charge against Zimmerman.
The murder charge doesn’t settle the question raised by Martin’s shooting. As Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” told the Christian Science Monitor, Martin’s killing is “not an exceptional case except for the fact that the one who did the accosting while armed was a private citizen” rather than a police officer.
Alexander pointed out the scope of a larger problem. Of the nearly 700,000 “stop and frisks” conducted by police in New York last year, she said, 87 percent of the people stopped were black or Hispanic. Yet only about 12 percent of the stops led to arrests or summonses. High rates of arrest, incarceration and unexplained stops by police, Alexander said, send “the message to young black men that no matter who you are, what you do, whether you play by the rules or not, you’re going to be viewed and treated like a criminal and you’re likely to wind up in jail one way or another.”
So what is the value of a young black man’s life if he can be put down, degraded and subjected to behavior that demeans him because of his race?
Let’s move to an international dimension of that question. It arises in the context of Afghanistan, and of U.S. responsibilities in that country.
An April 5 front-page story by The Washington Post’s Ernesto Londono, “A culture of exploitation,” delved into what is known as “bacha bazi,” the practice in which wealthy or prominent Afghan men take on “a boy for pleasure” — acquiring and exploiting underage boys as sexual partners or having them dress up as women and dance at gatherings. The youths are sometimes sold or loaned out to other Afghan predators.
It is out-and-out sexual slavery.
Apples and oranges, you might say. What does the rape of young boys in Afghanistan have to do with the Trayvon Martins of this country?
Put that way, very little. Except perhaps to raise a question about the extent to which powerless boys are devalued at home.
Why think the matter of enslaved Afghan boys is one of our problems to address? Because this odious sex-slave practice has been on the rise since the U.S.-led coalition pushed the Taliban from power.
The Taliban, while loathsome in its treatment of women and in so many other ways, regarded the buying and selling of boys to dance and perform sexual acts as a sin, child protection and human rights workers told The Post. They cracked down on bacha bazi.
But since the Taliban was ousted, bacha bazi has made a comeback.
It is sickening to think that the expenditure of U.S. lives and treasure could be making it possible for well-heeled Afghan men to coerce boys into becoming sexual toys.
This week, I asked the State Department about our government’s stance on this practice.
Spokeswoman Laura M. Seal replied in a written statement: “We are deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of Afghan boys exploited in the practice of ‘bacha bazi’ in Afghanistan. This form of sexual exploitation violates Afghan law and Afghanistan’s international obligations.
“We encourage the Afghan government to increase efforts to combat the practice, and the United States is working with our counterparts in the Government of Afghanistan, civil society and others in the international community, to improve the implementation of the rule of law and to provide protection for victims of sexual exploitation.”
Seal added that “the practice of ‘bacha bazi’ is mentioned in the State Department’s annual 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report in addition to the 2010 Human Rights Report on Afghanistan.”
We have no such report on the Trayvon Martins of America. But too often they know the hurts that come with derogation and the pain from indignities that are meted out below the radar.
Again, what is a boy’s life worth?
Colbert I. King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post