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The luxury of freedom

Bondage forgotten can easily find an echo in today's world
Kit Storm Photo

For those of us who have never faced the nightmare of captivity, our speculations about what we might face are largely consigned to vague imaginings of the horrors of the conditions, our ability to endure, and whether or not we would ever see our friends and family again. Yet for far too many throughout the world these concerns are the bulwark of daily life in a more immediate sense. Boko Haram has kidnapped to date close to three hundred Nigerian women and girls who are still missing ( Pirates continue to remain a palpable threat to many modern day mariners off the coast of Eastern Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean ( And Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been returned to the US after five years in captivity as a part of a prisoner exchange ( giving rise to speculation about his level of complicity with his captors as well as the circumstances of his abduction.

Examining these cases as horrific exceptions to the security we enjoy today neglects the reality that for much of our history, safety was far from assured. Kidnappings and piracy have fed the ranks of both captives’ chains and of slave pens for much of human existence. One of the more popular genres of literature in colonial America was the “captivity narrative” telling the tales of those who were carried into the camps of Native Americans and survived among them for a time. Mary Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was one of the most popular publications in early America ( Terror of kidnapping and enslavement by pirates or other brigands was simply a fact of life from the dawn of civilization which has lasted - in some areas - to the present day.

The exchange of hostages was a time-honored tradition with roots older than even the classical world. Hostages were considered protected guests - unless whatever agreement they’d been the surety for was breached; at that point they became property themselves, subject entirely to the whim of their captors. The practice was not confined to antiquity, but remained a formal part of diplomacy through Medieval Europe ( and beyond. A free member of a Germanic tribe was considered an autonomous being. Yet should he be killed, his blood price - or weregild - was paid to his lord or his family, in compensation for their loss (

This gives rise to the question of who, exactly, owns us. Are we autarchic beings with the right to control our own destinies? Our current rhetoric would seem to indicate that this is the case. We condemn slavery - at least officially - as something barbarous and best left in the musty annals of the past. That odious institution is a throwback to a time when a person could be said to legally be the property of another, something the modern mind reviles as contemptibly alien. The lowliest wage-slave today still owns his or her corporeal self. Although one might be forced to make concessions to the exigencies of living by selling oneself, as it were, one is one’s own self to sell.

One of the salient concerns throughout history was the question of who owns the body. A slave could be beaten, mutilated, raped, or killed since their body was their master’s property. Although numerous religious texts such as the Quran ( and the Bible ( have regulations on the punishments and lengths of service of slaves or servants, they are understood as property in the righteous order of things, relegated to the care of masters whose behavior is regulated by unerring divine law. Ransom, the specific valuation of a person’s life and liberty, had been codified to such a degree by the medieval period that the corporal work of mercy of the Catholic church which we render as “Visit the Imprisoned” was historically “Ransom the captive.” ( Mary Rowlandson was a woman who owned herself, held unlawfully and unjustly in a temporary situation. The relatively small number of slaves in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, ( were not stuck in any unnatural limbo; they were already fulfilling their own divinely ordered role in the world. We do not consider ourselves to be property in any legitimate way, therefore captivity is an aberration, something imposed upon us in violation of the legal and natural order of things.

In an ownership society such as ours, can there be a bleaker fate than no longer being one’s own human capital? We frequently consider ourselves as something better than the histories that spawned us, but our valuation in the hands of captors remains unchanged by millennia. We think, perhaps with compassion or pity, of incarceration, of the pointless truncation of the youth of people we do not know for non-violent offenses, but are unchanged in thinking of them as a commodity. For prison companies they represent a specific dollar amount. For our elected officials they are political capital, a palpable testimony to their penchant for law and order. For us they are cautionary examples of mismanaged lives and the fall into perdition, something we tell ourselves we have escaped by virtue of our own strength of character. If they are redeemable, we believe, they will be returned to us once their sins have been expiated. If they are not, they will never see the outside of their prisons again. In our self-assured opinion, they have lost ownership of themselves not through divine will, but as just recompense for their anti-social actions.

They are held in righteous chains, no different from divinely ordered slaves of antiquity. We, we assure ourselves, are different. Those who are held in perpetual bondage - essentially slavery without the legal designation - in third world areas such as Southeast Asia, Africa, and India as well as political dissidents in China and North Korea are paying the price, we are told, of their countries’ failures to establish an operational government which safeguards their liberties with the same zeal with which we defend our own. When we fall out of a symbolic universe that makes sense to us, therefore, we find ourselves not simply in a horrific situation, but also in an existential crisis. The very structure of the world comes apart when any of us is subjected to unjust detention and the loss of self-ownership. However, for the quintessential “great man” of history, Julius Caesar, captivity at the hands of pirates was simply par for the course. The impetus for the eventual apprehension and crucifixion of his captors was not rooted in any abrogation of his rights, but grew from the comparatively low ransom they demanded for his return - as well as the insults they directed towards his poetry ( To us, such a violation of our rights would be an attack on civilization itself. Before we are capable of any sort of empathy or understanding towards anyone held against their will, we are called upon to surrender our illusion of safety, something our modern minds find all but impossible to even contemplate.

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