The current administration is not likely to have a more ambivalent triumph than the one it achieved Thursday with the release of basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian labor camp in exchange for a truly dangerous man named Victor Bout. Certainly it’s good news that Griner is free and on her way home via the United Arab Emirates, where the exchange was consummated. And it’s unlikely that Bout will be able to rebuild his arms-dealing empire, given the changes in that game since he’s been in jail (this assumes that he doesn’t make the terminal Russian mistake of standing too close to a window). But people are wondering, rightly, about the status of other Americans detained in Putinland, in particular Paul Whelan, a former Marine convicted of spying and now rounding into his fifth year of imprisonment.
It is enormously to the credit of Whelan’s brother, David, that he issued a statement of unconditional support for Griner’s release. (Back in August, there were reports that a deal was being worked out that would’ve brought both Griner and Whelan home in exchange for Bout.) And it is a remarkable achievement for the president and his State Department that they managed to broker this deal while Russia is getting its ass kicked all over Ukraine.
If there’s any lesson in this whole saga it’s that Americans, especially conspicuous American celebrities, should not go to Russia at all. The government there appears to be operating on the same business plan as the drug cartels in this hemisphere, or the Somali ship hijackers: Grab up an influential hostage and get what you can in return. From the Washington Post:
Notably, Democrats underscored President Biden’s commitment to releasing people still detained in Russia, while Republicans criticized the American president for the ongoing captivity. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that Griner “suffered unthinkable trauma” while she was “wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian government.” She also said the detention reflected the cruelty of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as does “his monstrous actions against Ukraine,” which Pelosi called “staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.”
Naturally, the conservative peanut gallery disapproved of the whole business.
Detractors said Thursday that the United States got the worse end of the deal, trading a gun-smuggler nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” for one of the most talented women ever to step on a basketball court, who was convicted of carrying less than a gram of hash oil in her luggage upon arriving in Russia in February. Sebastian Gorka, a former Breitbart editor who was a White House aide under the Donald Trump presidency, questioned why Biden would return a prolific gunrunner right now, as Russia looks to ramp up its invasion in Ukraine.
The biggest section of the peanut gallery seems to be located in Florida. No surprise there. From Florida Politics:
Florida Sen. Rick Scott said he was “glad” Griner, imprisoned in Russia since February for holding a cannabis vape cartridge, was coming home. But he also noted another high-profile Russian captive was not returning in the trade that brought Griner home in exchange for notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout. “I’m glad Brittney is coming home … but what about U.S. Marine vet Paul Whelan? He’s still held by Putin in Russia. For Biden to give Putin a dangerous arms dealer — someone known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ — is weak & disgusting. Doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable,” Scott tweeted Thursday morning. U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz made a similar point in his own Thursday morning tweet. “Where is U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer? Celebrities over veterans?” Biden addressed Whelan’s continued detention Thursday. He vowed that the fight to bring him home would continue. Whelan was arrested in 2018 on suspicions of espionage and has been detained since in Russia.
Christina Pushaw, who has been both an official and political spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, also castigated the White House prisoner swap Thursday, with a tweet spotlighting the Nicolas Cage vehicle “Lord of War”. That 2005 film is based on the life of Bout. “So about the Russian criminal Biden freed in exchange for Brittany Griner — this movie covers his career funneling weapons to terrorists & conspiring to kill Americans. Biden just created an incentive for foreign countries to arrest more Americans to get more sweet deals like this,” Pushaw contended.
(Keep an eye on Pushaw. She’s ready for her close-up in 2024, and she’s a real piece of work.)
Of course, Griner has been a culture-war accessory for the wingnuts ever since she got publicly political, and they crowed loudly when she was busted. From The Atlantic:
“On the bright side, B Griner won’t have to endure our National Anthem for 9 whole years! What a win for her!” the Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren tweeted to her 2 million followers after Griner’s sentence was announced. It was a reference to Griner’s refusal to walk onto the court when the anthem was played—a protest against the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers in 2020. Instead of reflecting on what her fellow American citizen would have to endure in a Russian penal colony for charges Lahren herself described as “excessive, overblown, and overkill,” Lahren took the opportunity to taunt and shame Griner for exercising her First Amendment rights.
But this wasn’t enough for some people. “Perhaps Griner’s time in Russian jail will inspire a newfound gratitude for our government, our national anthem, and our Anglo-American heritage, which provide her the freedoms she now no longer enjoys,” Micah Veillon, then an editorial intern, wrote for The American Conservative.
If Griner is smart, she’ll go to ground as soon as she gets home. God alone knows what she’s actually been through in the Russian penal system as a high-profile gay black celebrity. She should ask for privacy and then throw herself into it. There will be time enough later for her to speak about her experiences, if she chooses. But the political hurly-burly should be something to avoid. She should enjoy the meditative benefits of shooting around in an empty gym.
Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has his three children.
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