Broken promises?

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April 9, 2015 by AK

In Slate, Masha Gessen writes about the death of Ibragim Todashev, a presumed associate of the elder Tsarnaev, who was shot by an FBI agent during an interrogation. But central to Gessen’s piece is another story, that of a middle-aged Russian woman who married an American man, followed him to the US, divorced him six months later and found herself in a precarious predicament: at a risk of deportation and without health insurance. She signed up for Army training and service, with the standard benefits and a promise of citizenship attached.

Six years later, she was told that she would be placed on an indefinite paid leave: she was under FBI investigation because her daughter had been romantically involved with Todashev. The next day, writes Gessen, “Elena accepted a medical discharge from the Army.”

As we learn from the article, Elena is now a US citizen. Gessen does not mention whether Elena was entitled to any benefits after her discharge. I imagine she was – since it was honorable, on health grounds, and the lady is now “retired,” in Gessen’s words – but the article skips over these details.

We know that at least on that crucial point, citizenship, the US kept its promise. It is unfortunate that a circumstance outside of Elena’s control – her daughter’s affection for Todashev – cut her army career short. But Gessen goes farther than that, apparently siding with Elena, whose deep disappointment with her new homeland translates into a judgment of moral equivalence between the US and Russia:

America’s promise of fairness, openness, and honesty had turned out to be a ruse, she [Elena] concluded. It was not a better country than Russia; it was just a better liar…

…the minute she heard her daughter screaming into the phone – “Mama, they killed him!” – she knew she had been fooled. The same rules applied in this country as in the old one. The secret police killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later. The secret police could and would engineer tragedies to their own ends, or to the government’s; someone to blame could always be found later.

I can understand Elena’s disillusionment – although America’s promise personally to her was at least partially fulfilled – I can even accept that the psychological trauma was so deep that it ruined the lady’s good judgment:

Elena became part of the online community of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defenders.

In contrast, I am suspicious of Gessen’s tacit acceptance of Elena’s flawed logic. To view this case as strong evidence of moral equivalence between the two countries, or their law-enforcement agencies, one has to boldly extrapolate from a very small pool of facts, to put it mildly.


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