The WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner has appealed her nine-year sentence in a Russian workhouse, for bringing marijuana into that country last February.
I allowed myself to get into a disgusting Facebook fight not long ago, over whether Griner should expect her government to intervene on her behalf. (A Vietnam veterans group thought Griner should have to apologize to them before she could come home because she once asked that the National Anthem not be—oh, never fucking mind.)
Halfway into this dumb donnybrook, I asked myself why I had succumbed.
- My wife had COVID, so our newly emptied nest was now quarantined, too. (Half the reason we’re divided in this country is for our amusement.)
- I once smuggled drugs across the border of a hostile superpower, too.
Almost 20 years ago, I took a three-week train-and-plane sortie across China with a big group led by a Chinese-speaking family member. One of the great adventures of a life full of them.
A relatively minor plot twist came when a couple of us decided in a to go for the gusto in life, and score some marijuana in the southern Chinese town of Dali. We’d been told (I think it was even in a guidebook) that it was customary and tacitly okay to get a bag—from adorable, elderly, nuns in blue dresses, if you can believe it. We located such a nun, and she offered us a choice—seeds, or no seeds. On a budget, we chose, “seeds.” The wee woman presented us with a large bag, at least a quarter ounce, of what turned out to be some of the most ineffective reefer any of us had ever smoked. The buzz was weak and somehow moody, too.
Disgusted, we ditched the stuff after one night’s toking, went back to drinking wine. A few days later, it was time to fly to Kunming for a day or two, then on to Hong Kong, and home. That morning at the hotel, I went to dispose of the bag of grass. But I couldn’t find it anywhere! My desperate hands tore my bag apart, checked all the pockets, everything. I can’t remember what I concluded must have happened to it—or whether I told my mates about the potential trouble—but I do remember being nervous, going through airport security for the flight to Kunming.
No problem there—and I think I’d forgotten about the situation by the time we checked into the airport in Hong Kong a few days later, to connect through L.A. and back home to Chicago. In fact, I didn’t think about that missing reefer again until three weeks after I was home, when I casually opened my camera case—and there that quarter ounce was! I shuddered, of course.
What a fucking idiot! I had a two-year-old daughter at the time! What if I’d have been jailed in China for her entire childhood!
Giving that seedy stuff one more college try just to calm down, I wondered what the U.S. Embassy in China would have done for me, if anything, had I been jailed for my stupidity. I wondered what the embassy should do for me. Honestly, I didn’t really know. All I knew is that I hoped they would try to get me out of there, at least to do my jail time Stateside (so my daughter could visit me in prison?). I guess all I would have expected is that any fellow American who learned about my case would sympathize (after however much head-shaking), and want me to come home.
Brittney Griner makes a similar claim, about careless packing. Though I might be more inclined to believe her than you are, I don’t even care if she’s telling the truth. I know this woman does not deserve to spend nine years in a fucking Russian workhouse for this entirely harmless, victimless “crime” she wittingly or unwittingly, carelessly or stupidly committed. And I know anyone whose instinct is to sit with a drink at their elbow, clucking about how Briner should take responsibility for her “choices,” can go to hell—if their lonely, bitter, shitty lack of empathy for their fellow human beings isn’t already hell enough.
Unless it’s in our political best interest, we don’t even do much for our military prisoners of war in this country. I once spent a weekend with the son of Francis Gary Powers, exploring the idea of writing a book about the U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over Russia in 1960 and remained a prisoner there for a year and a half—only to return to a hostile CIA grilling whose transcript I acquired through a FOIA request. An astonished, wounded Powers was hectored and hounded about, among other things, why he didn’t take a “suicide pill,” as he parachuted to earth, to kill himself before the Soviets could interview him. I wound up scrapping the idea of doing any kind of story about Powers, because the whole incident was just so depressing.
This Brittney Griner story is also depressing. Bad luck, bad timing, bad news, bad options. But it would be less so, if her fellow American citizens could put themselves in Griner’s unfortunate place and, rather than comb her life history looking for critical things she has said about her country (they could have found hundreds of such things that I’ve said before and after my non-arrest in China). How about you just quietly hope the State Department can work out a deal for her return?
But nobody just quietly does anything in this country anymore, even when they know sensitive negotiations are underway. Especially when they are underway! Folks want to get involved in the talks! And so we have lots of amateur Henry Kissingers debating the merits of a proposed prisoner swap, and lots more unhelpful gassing on by Fisher-Price Political Ethicists about whether we should be doing any business at all with the current Russian regime.
But as a feller who might still be senselessly, uselessly, idiotically sitting in a Chinese jail right now, I want to see our Brittney Griner come home. And I think every decent American who has ever gotten away with doing something super dumb—or has the imagination to see how she or he could—should want her to come home, too.