Dissecting the months-long saga of the American hikers in Iran
By Abby Sophir
Violation: failure to stop behind the white line at a stop sign. Consequence: You are issued a ticket.
In many instances, boundaries are clear-cut, marked with bold letters and blatant lines. If violated, loud buzzers are sounded and consequences are paid, no questions asked.
In contrast, the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran is ill-defined, marked only by rugged, mountainous terrain. Prominent ”Leaving Iraq” or “Welcome to Iran” signs are nowhere to be found. Without comprehensive research, one may not even know that they have transcended into the neighboring country. But while the driver in the aforementioned event has little chance of getting out of the ticket, these latter circumstances leave room for extensive debate when it comes to consequences.
In July 2009, three young U.S. Hikers—Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd—were visiting Almed Awa, a waterfall and tourist attraction located in Iraq, very close to the Iraq-Iran border. Iranian officials supposedly found the hikers in their territory and imprisoned them, accusing the young Americans of espionage, despite a lack of evidence.
Shortly after the incident, U.S. media pounced on the story, with headlines that stated “American hikers detained in Iran.” Within days, a Facebook page, “Free the Hikers,” had been “liked” over 23,000 times. The American public immediately rallied behind the hikers, denouncing Iranian actions and accusing officials of human rights violations.
But the question arises: Who ultimately “crossed the line?” Who overstepped their boundaries given the situation: the American hikers or the Iranian officials?
On Sept. 4, 2010, after 410 days in solitary confinement, Shourd was released; Bauer and Fattal remain in Iranian custody waiting for their November trial. The “Free the Hikers” official webpage states, “Shane, Sarah and Josh are innocent of any crime, and, as Amnesty International reports, their extended pre-trial detention is a violation of Iranian and international law.”
It is true that the hikers are being held without any evidence of crossing into Iranian territory or intentions of spying. It is true that they are living in solitary confinement, with no outside contact and have been allowed to telephone their families only once since their arrest 16 months ago.
However, these unfortunate consequences, which many people view as a call for action, are the direct result of the naïveté and the poor decision-making of the hikers.
“Hikers, and all travelers for that matter, have a responsibility to know the environment to which they desire to travel,” said Megan-Mack Nicholson, recreation and leadership studies instructor at Ithaca College and an avid hiker. “By using the word ‘environment,’ I intend it to encompass the political, physical, cultural and religious realms of the area. Traveling into an area known to have political unrest, therein or nearby, demands even further investigation and precautions in order to avoid conflict or mishap.”
Though recent relevations by WikiLeaks show that the group was seized by Iranian authorities who trespassed onto Iraqi soil, experienced hikers such as Shourd, Bauer and Fattal should have known better than to approach the Iranian border, and they probably should have avoided the conflicted area altogether. They went into Iraqi Kurdistan knowing that the boundaries were not clearly delineated, choosing to take a “recreational hike” on the edge of a country the United States is at war with. Of the millions of hiking destinations in the world, the fact that the American hikers chose that area raises suspicion of an ulterior motive for the hike.
According to the WikiLeaks release, the U.S. military not only knew of the hikers’ presence in the region but warned them in advance about straying over the border into Iran.
The end of the document reads, “The lack of coordination on the part of these hikers, particularly after being forewarned, indicates an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran.”
Would the United States have not done the same as Iran in a similar situation? Although human rights violations are evident, the hikers would not be in this position had they not acted irresponsibly.
“Americans often forget that they aren’t allowed to operate as they do in America while in other nations,” said Nicholson. “It is our duty as travelers to respect and abide by said laws of where we go, and as the saying goes… ‘While in Rome, do as the Romans do.’”
In order to earn global respect, we as Americans must be more conscious of where we set our feet and be willing to accept the consequences of any lines we may be crossing in the process.
Abby Sophir is a freshman TV-R major who has been known to get lost from time to time. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.