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Christian Fundamentalists and Private Military Contractors? The Strange Bedfellows of the Sex Slavery Anti-Trafficking Movement

Mainstream anti-trafficking efforts are colored by a black-and-white worldview that lacks real understanding of the causes of global trafficking.

In the 2008 film  Taken, Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative whose undercover past is called into action when his daughter is kidnapped while traveling abroad and sold into sexual slavery. Using his counterterrorism skills to torture and murder those who stand between him and his daughter’s captors, he eventually rescues his daughter and comes home a hero, with no consequences exacted for the violence he’s inflicted in the name of his daughter’s safety.

The film was a commercial, if not critical, hit (a sequel is forthcoming in 2012), perhaps because, like many a made-for-TV movie or  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, it served a voyeuristic interest in the world of forced prostitution and sex trafficking involving attractive young, white, middle-class female victims and ethnically Other (Eastern European in this particular case) male perpetrators. Its success also mirrored the real-world events of a presidential administration that justified the use of torture—euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as a valid means of preventing catastrophic terror attacks, and which dismissed reported cases of extreme prisoner abuses like those at Abu Ghraib as exceptions: safety at any cost, by any means necessary.

The self-purported inspiration for Bryan Mills was retired colonel Bill Hillar of the U.S. Army Special Forces (a.k.a. the Green Berets), who was a popular keynote speaker, trainer, and consultant on the topic of human trafficking. Claiming to have multiple advanced degrees, he gave lectures, trainings, and consultations in which he described his daughter’s abduction into sex slavery to law enforcement officials, private groups, and college audiences. According to Hillar, his daughter was abducted and sold to a brothel while traveling through Southeast Asia with a friend. Using his professional connections as a counterterror specialist, Hillar supposedly, like Neeson’s character, traveled around the globe in search of his daughter. But, as he sadly told audiences, his story did not have the same ending: Despite his efforts, his daughter never came home.

Hillar was widely acclaimed as an American hero who, despite his loss, continued to share his experience and expertise in an effort to end human trafficking. In November 2010, he was scheduled to present the keynote lecture at the annual conference of Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans (OATH), on whose board he served. When, at the last minute, he canceled his appearance due to personal circumstances, OATH instead presented a video recording of one of Hillar’s earlier lectures.

As an audience member at that presentation, I felt unsettled by Hillar’s demeanor in the video. There was something off in his graphic, detailed description of the taking, selling, and murdering of his daughter, and the fact that there was little to no mention of their relationship prior to her abduction. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn, months later, that the “personal circumstances” that precluded Hillar’s appearance at the conference included a pending investigation into his long history of fraud. As it turned out,  Hillar never served in the U.S. Army, let alone the Green Berets. He had no academic credentials, nor any expertise in counterterrorism. And his daughter was never kidnapped, trafficked, or murdered.

Yet the simulacrum that is Bill Hillar has become part of the reality of the anti-trafficking movement, in which a language of militarization and vengeance is the basis for a disturbing take on activism in the name of the exploited.

“Human trafficking” is a relatively new term to describe the selling and trading of people. While it had been used in policy contexts in the past (as in the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others), it entered common parlance around 2000 with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A quick search on a news database shows that there were only three references to “human trafficking” or “trafficking in humans” before 2000. It was mentioned 9 times in 2000, 41 times in 2001, and broke 100 mentions for the first time in 2005. In 2010, there were more than 500 references.

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