Haiti debate falls into gray area of ethics

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2010

One key debate continues to swirl around relief efforts in Haiti, overshadowing nearly everything else: Are a group of 10 Americans currently under arrest simply passionate missionaries who wanted to give some children a better life or are they smooth-talking, lawbreakers who deceived families?

Those answers are far more difficult than identifying the question because it essentially becomes an ethical debate of the most difficult nature. It centers on the age-old argument of whether or not the end justifies the means.

In other words, do good intentions make up for the methods used to arrive at the end results?

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In Haiti, where death looms around every corner and even the most basic necessities seem like intangible dreams, the world isn’t nearly just black and white.

The earthquake-decimated country’s residents live in constant shades of gray.

And that is certainly the case with a group of missionaries, most from an Idaho church, led by online businesswoman Laura Silsby.

The group has been charged with kidnapping and criminal conspiracy, each of which could carry significant prison sentences.

It appears that the missionaries argue that they were simply trying to help meet the needs of the 33 children that were on their way to the Dominican Republic to allegedly stay in a make-shift orphanage.

The Haitian authorities say that the group broke the law by attempting to take children out of the country without the proper authorization and that Silsby was advised that she was breaking the law to try and do so.

What makes the matter even more concerning is that Silsby apparently has a history of blatant disregard for laws, American or otherwise.

The woman has been named in eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims, mostly tied to her Web site personalshopper.com. Her upscale Idaho home was foreclosed on late last year and she has been slapped with at least nine traffic violations, including several that were as basic as maintaining her car registration or insurance.

This checkered past puts everything that has come since in a different light and gives the other missionaries’ claims that they didn’t know what was going on more validity.

Were these missionaries truly out to kidnap these children? Probably not.

Many reports conflict about whether or not the parents of the children were told consistent stories about where they were going. Most were likely trying to do what they felt was right and help these children get to safety where they can receive the care they need.

Were Silsby’s intentions just as pure? That remains to be seen.

But the biggest question remains: What now?

There is pressure on some fronts for the U.S. government to get involved but that really shouldn’t happen.

These individuals broke Haitian law, knowingly or not, and now need to allow the legal system to play out.

Is our government going to step in every time an American citizen gets arrested in a foreign country? Who would draw the line between those we fight for and those we don’t?

And perhaps more concerning is this: How can we say that taking these children is OK when it sets a dangerous precedent for the future?

Who’s to say whether or not the next group seeking permission to take children out of Haiti or some other country has less altruistic intentions? How can we say one group is OK but others or not?

It seems likely we would see lots of slave traders and other monsters masquerading as something else.

So, for these 33 Haitian children and the thousands of others in need, the end certainly needs to be the focus, but we cannot ignore or justify any means used to get there.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.