Brittney Griner recently returned home upon being let out of jail by the Russians in exchange for the release of Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer suspected of being an enemy of the United States. Most of the US appears happy to see Griner finally released, though perspectives on the situation are varied. It will be interesting to see how Griner reflects on the incident and how the media frames the story moving forward.
In the movies, when our naïve, headstrong protagonist does something foolish and gets into trouble that escalates tensions between greater powers than themselves, often their elders, friends, and allies must make great efforts to get them out of danger. This usually threatens other interests or requires sacrifices of principle and honor to accomplish. In the movies this drama usually results in character growth for the protagonist. The lesson learned from their behavior helps them become humble as they admit their actions were selfish and wrong. Their friends and family can then forgive them and move on with their lives and goals. This common dynamic in our storytelling reflects inherent moral truths that govern our ethical behaviors and relationships.
Griner’s actions (bringing illegal substances into Russia) violated their laws. The punishment the Russians gave Griner however was severe and likely politically motivated. Nevertheless, she broke their laws for selfish reasons and caused a long international incident. The US, for better or worse, compromised on its principles and engaged in a prisoner swap to get Griner released. Such dealings are not a great thing to universalize or normalize. We do not want to encourage high-profile prisoner swaps because it promotes further unjust convictions by America’s adversaries in hopes of gaining future political leverage. This is the true legacy of Griner’s actions that hopefully will be understood by Griner and US observers. Principled people should be weary of it being glossed over to promote simple expressions of joy over the release along with opportunities to further demonize the Russians. We also must not forget about others in Russia, including Paul Whelan – another high-profile prisoner whose situation was discussed along with Griner but was not released along with Griner. Will we be expected to give up more to get him and others out as well? Will Americans begin to demand this type of action more as a rule? How many Americans in the future will be unjustly punished by America’s adversaries in hopes of securing deals in their favor?
Hopefully Griner recognizes all this and expresses remorse for the actions that encouraged it. Another possibility is Griner seeks to cash in on the incident. The media and certain US actors may continue to promote Griner as a victim to be used as a pawn in political games. Should we accept this? Were this a movie it would not be accepted as adequate closure. It would signal further violations of moral duties and ethical action that must be acknowledged and remedied. It is on all of us to recognize this and demand proper closure to move forward without escalation and further harm being done
It will be interesting to see how it plays out as Griner inevitably becomes vocal about the incident. I’m rooting for Griner to do the right thing.