E. Benjamin Skinner

A Crime So Monstrous

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A Crime So Monstrous Summary

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A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (2008) by journalist E. Benjamin Skinner conveys personal stories from living people who were former slaves. Along with talking with former slaves, Skinner talked to those who buy and sell slaves. Skinner spent five years traveling the world and conducting in-depth interviews with both buyers and slaves; these locations include Eastern Europe and Asia, suburban America, Haiti, Sudan, India, Turkey, and the Netherlands. The book won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for best nonfiction piece promoting peace and was praised for its clear writing, dramatic storytelling, and the courage of the author who entered situations where he could easily have been killed.

Its themes include political corruption, shedding light on pervasive crime, and the rights of every human. Inspired to counteract a quote by Joseph Stalin – “A single death is a tragedy; a million dead is a statistic”—Skinner aimed to describe in depth the slave experience of several individuals.

Skinner opens A Crime So Monstrous with the startling claim that it is very easy to buy a slave within five hours, even from the industrious cultural capital of the U.S. and home of the U.N: Manhattan. Written in the second person singular, this chapter – “The Riches of the Poor” – walks the reader from boarding a plane at JFK airport to a direct flight to Haiti.

In Port-a-Prince, Haiti in October 2005, the author interviews a modern-day slave-owner. He tells Skinner that he can “place” any child in a home. When Skinner hypothetically asks if a child (nine to twelve) could be a domestic slave and sex worker, the man says of course. The fee for this child is only one hundred dollars (this is bartered down to fifty dollars). Throughout the transaction, Skinner is struck by the tone of the transaction; to the slave seller, this transaction is no different than if the man were offering him a used stereo player.

Skinner reviews the history of Haiti, noting the cruel irony that the only country on earth to independently free itself from slavery in 1791 is now the country with the highest number of slaves within its own borders.

Though used metaphorically in contemporary parlance, Skinner defines “slave” as someone who is forced to work through fraud and illegal agreements, paid subsistence wages, and who cannot leave that work due to the constant threat of violence. These slaves are forced into sex trafficking, but far more often, into hard labor, such as grinding sand into dust or mining for stone.

There are 12.5 to 27 million slaves today. Consequently, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history. Most slaves are in East Asia and India. In the U.S., on average, the Justice Department estimates that fifteen thousand people are trafficked into the U.S. each year.

Skinner learns more about debt bondage. He meets a man he calls Gonoo. Goonoo lives in northern India. Three generations ago, his relatives agreed to work as a slave for seventy-three cents. With interest, his family could not pay off the debt, and Gonoo continues to work sixteen-hour days in a stone quarry. His slave master, a notorious serial killer, threatens to murder him if he were to stop working.

In Romania, Skinner meets a fifteen-year-old with Down syndrome who is forced to work in a brothel. He notices that her mascara is running from tears and there are strings of red cut marks on her arms; she clearly wants to die rather than continue working as a sex slave. As he finishes talking with her pimp, Skinner is offered the young woman if he gives the pimp a used car. In South Sudan, he meets a twelve-year-old boy who was abducted by an Arab slave pimp, along with his mother and brother.

Skinner analyzes why slavery exists when it is illegal throughout the world. Citing half a dozen examples, he suggests that slavery persists largely due to government inaction and corruption. This is especially the case in Sudan, which continues to struggle from the after-effects of a civil war.

Skinner reviews the work of several NGOs and faith-based organizations that oppose human slavery. This includes John Miller, the director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, whom Skinner dubs “America’s antislavery czar.” As an ambassador, he’s credited with pushing many anti-human slavery laws through the U.S. and other countries. One effort led by Christian Solidarity International bought 85,000 slaves to free them.

The man in Haiti who offered to sell a child (called restavèk or “stay with”) for $50 ends up fleeing the country once he realizes Skinner is a reporter. Authorities could not locate the man.

Skinner considers the difference between human “trafficking” and slavery as a form of murder, or “crime against humanity.” He supports the latter usage. It is a more fitting description of what he saw traveling the world. When framed as a crime against humanity rather than something abstract, such as “trafficking,” he believes more people would become active in their rejection of human slavery.