Leibo At Large: Griner case illustrates plight of detained Americans

By David Leibowitz

The open letter to President Biden, written by hand and released on the Fourth of July, tore at the heart. This is the unfortunate plight of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, wrongfully detained for 143 days and counting in a godforsaken gulag 6,000 miles from home.

“As I sit here in a Russian prison,” Griner wrote, “alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.” She went on to beseech Biden: “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.”

We have been told by the White House press secretary Biden has read the letter. We also have been told his administration will “use every tool we possibly can” to bring Griner home. I hope so, because Russian news reports have said Griner, arrested on Feb. 17, faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly having 0.702 grams of hash oil in two vape cartridges in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7.

Biden and the U.S. State Department should use every tool in America’s toolbox to secure Griner’s release — exactly as he should on behalf of the more than 60 Americans currently held hostage in foreign countries.

Like Paul Whelan, a former Marine wrongfully detained in Russia since 2018. Like “the Citgo 6,” petroleum executives wrongfully held in Venezuela since 2017. And like Alina Lopez-Miyares, wrongfully locked up in a Cuban prison since January 2017.

In a more just world, we would care about all these Americans with the same vigor and at the same loud volume. The truth? As a culture, we have a limited attention span, a finite amount of compassion we spend in dollops — a sprinkling for the homeless here, a few spoonfuls for the struggling poor there and a drip or two for Brittney Griner.

Is that right? I don’t think so. I wish we had an endless reserve of compassion, enough to go around in the right proportions.

Even so, I disagree wholeheartedly with Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who took dead aim at America in comments supporting Griner last month.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Nygaard declared. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those. We know it.”

Actually, it’s a statement about how little we pay attention to wrongful detainees and their suffering. Virtually no one save the families of the imprisoned has made a peep about wrongfully imprisoned Americans anywhere, about Whelan, the Citgo 6 or Lopez-Miyares. This silence has nothing to do with race, gender or who someone loves. It has everything to do with our culture’s capacity to empathize.

Nygaard seems to think if Griner was male, white and straight, America would be threatening nuclear war. Reality says otherwise. Nygaard is correct about one thing, though. If LeBron James was wrongfully imprisoned, Americans would be rioting in the streets.

That has everything to do with celebrity, which is the only reason you have heard about Brittney Griner’s case at all. If Griner couldn’t dribble, couldn’t dunk, wasn’t a six-time WBNA All-Star, her imprisonment would be occurring in silence.

Nygaard is dead wrong about for whom we care and why. We reserve the greatest compassion for the most famous among us — it is a perverted truth about the American way. 

I hope Brittney Griner comes home soon. And I hope we bring every other wrongfully detained American home with her.