For Families of U.S. Hikers in Iran, Another Pain: Internet Backlash

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Why do so many people seem to express scorn toward the Americans held in an Iranian prison for two years now?

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Laura Fattal stands outside of her Pennsylvania home / AP

Over coffee in Accra last week, I tried to explain the case of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal to an expat friend, an American who -- like thousands of others -- has joined the "got what they deserved" chorus that has grown since Bauer and Fattal were arrested by Iranian forces while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. "You can't just go hiking near a country where we don't have diplomatic ties in a country we occupy," she said. "What did they think was going to happen?"

Safe to say they didn't expect 10 years in the most notorious of Iran's prisons, which is the fate Bauer, a freelance journalist, and Fattal, an environmentalist, face after news leaked Saturday that an Iranian judiciary had sentenced them to eight years in jail (not counting two years already served) on charges of espionage and illegal entry.

The men maintain that they, along with 31-year-old Sarah Shourd, had been hiking along the border when they mistakenly strayed into Iran. There have also been reports that border guards snatched the trio from a safe vantage on the Iraqi side, or that they were lured across by gun-wielding soldiers.Many people who hear the story refuse to believe that three American kids in their late 20s could be so adventurous as to want to hike this fairly remote area. It can't be that they're well-traveled, deeply inquisitive, and eager to see places others don't. It must be -- aha! -- that they're spies, just as the Iranian government claims.

Hatred has gone viral on the internet, where anonymous strangers (many of them in broken and often incomprehensible English, leading to doubts about their motives and affiliation) use them as a lightning rod for what can sometimes seem like every political grievance surrounding Iran, with whom the U.S. has had no diplomatic ties since 1979. Shane and Josh, two unwitting UC Berkeley grads, have become a rare window into Iran, and a way for people to vent their frustrations about everything from Zionism to excessive "do-gooder-ism."

Reading online discussion of the hikers' case and talking to Americans about it, there often seems to be an overwhelming and, frankly, incomprehensible lack of compassion from people who believe they deserve their fate. "Being American and being close to a country with no diplomatic ties to the U.S. and most other western countries, was mindless," read one such comment on an Al Jazeera post. "If you walk along the edge of a cliff and fall off you cannot blame the cliff."

And that's a nice one. Nine people 'liked' it.

What their detractors don't see is the harsh reality of life for these two men, a life that -- if Iran gets its way -- will means an entire decade away from home. We all make mistakes. Sometimes they're grave. Imagine your own mistake leading to Evin prison, the most notorious in Iran. There they share a 10 by 14 foot cell. It's where they eat, sleep, bathe, and use the bathroom, 23 hours per day.

Fattal, who used to wander the roads of Bangalore and sit on the roof of his home in South Africa, is surrounded by concrete. Bauer, who had achieved full fluency in Arabic -- a feat unattained by many Western journalists in the region -- sits on his bed, unable to report the violence raging in Syria, where he had been living at the time of the hike. Their close-knit families have had next to no contact with them since July 2009, save for one short visit by their mothers in May 2010 and two 5-minute phone calls home, one of which came this spring after the boys went on a two-week hunger strike.

It's a fate that seems harsh punishment for even the severest of criminals. But the hikers have seen not an outpouring of compassion. Surprisingly, the response has been one of such negativity Los Angeles Times columnist Megan Daum dedicated a column to the odd phenomenon earlier this summer, coining the term "hiker hate."

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and foreign dignitaries -- everyone from Desmond Tutu to Iranian Nobel winner Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Ali -- have defended the hikers against Tehran's allegations of spying for the CIA, for which no evidence has ever been produced. Still, posters on anonymous message boards on media and political sites have for the last two years questioned why they were hiking in such an unstable area, asserting time and again that "they got what they deserved." With the weekend's sentence came a new flood that prompted one of Josh's close friends to message that she was "beyond belief ... at the hate on our site and all over the net."

Talk to Sarah Shourd on the phone and you hear a young woman missing her fiance, not a trained CIA operative dealing with the fallout of a mission gone awry. Instead they've become an example for those who want to rant about the U.S.'s own treatment of its political prisoners -- an issue, to be sure, but one that now has two wrong-place, wrong-time Americans it its crosshairs. Said one representative commenter: "...the US can hardly criticise [sic] given that they operate their own concentration & torture camps where the victims are held indefinitely with no visitations by the Red Cross or their own countries... the US runs a kangaroo court where the only outcome is guilty & the detainees lawyers are not allowed to cross examine witnesses. But they still have the gall to criticise and condem others..."

Their theory seems to be that because the U.S. treats prisoners unfairly, Bauer and Fattal must suffer -- their incarceration a stigmata for their government's sins.

The real shame behind the hiker hate is that Shane and Josh, much as I'm sure they'd appreciate high-speed wi-fi or an iPhone, don't see it. The receipients are Josh's mother, Laura Fattal, in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; Shane's mother Cindy Hickey, in suburban Minnesota; Shourd, who became engaged to Bauer in Evin's exercise pen; and Alex Fattal, Josh's big brother, who has put his Harvard graduate studies on hold for nearly two years. In reporting this case, the boys' loved ones have repeatedly stressed that they in fact see much of the online hate -- and that it causes a great amount of anguish.

Few other high-profile cases of Americans abducted in largely unknown foreign lands have attracted this kind of vitriol from strangers. In 2009, Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were held in North Korea for five months. Despite naysayers who questioned why the women had wandered so close to the border, there were vigils attended by thousands, warmly received CNN appearances by Laura's sister, the television correspondent Lisa Ling, and Current boss Al Gore. Online support agitated for the safe return of the plucky correspondent and her producer, mother to an adorable 4-year-old.

Many of the people I talk to about the case -- whether they're responding to one of my stories, or expats and sources I meet and befriend in the field -- remain unconvinced that the trio weren't spying for the CIA and say "I don't know" when faced with statements from Obama and Clinton refuting the claim.

This I guarantee: if the Iranians had hard evidence indicting Shane and Josh, it would have been trotted out on state-run TV. To accuse them of spying is to accuse our President of lying to the American public.

Perhaps it's just that the country of abduction was Iran. As a friend pointed out, "Iran is scary." This is the second major case in recent memory involving Americans abducted in that country, on the heels of Robert Levinson's disappearance off Kish Island (Iran's version of Las Vegas) five years ago. Levinson is himself a former agent, adding to the internet conspiracy theory.

As Daum pointed out in her column, there are -- as with any international story involving jail terms and Iran and Americans -- mysterious aspects to this case. Questions swirl about Shourd's $500,000 bail. Where was it posted, and who by? Were they sold out by their Kurdish guide? And, of course, the question most regularly asked on the internet and in person, something that likely haunts Bauer and Fattal every day: why choose to hike along an unmarked border with one of the world's most anti-American countries?

Having followed this case from its early days, and after extensive reporting of it, it's my belief -- one shared by everyone I've met who observes it with more than a passing glance -- that the much-maligned hikers were three well-traveled, incredibly curious individuals intent on bettering the world in the ways they saw fit: Fattal through environmental and sustainability work, Shourd through teaching English, Bauer through journalism.

One of the most prevalent anti-hikers memes is the idea of excessive hubris -- that they're do-gooders whose pig-headed idealism got them in trouble. Yes, they were do-gooders. They did a lot of good. May we all help rural areas in India and Africa, learn Arabic, take up residence in Damascus, educate and be educated by people from every culture whether in Kurdistan or Cape Town. According to Daum's column, only 30 percent of Americans  own passports. I asked three of the hikers' American detractors to identify Iran on a map, something none were able to do.

There are several theories for the hate. People might be resentful about our Secretary of State having to focus attention on what many feel was the hikers' lark gone awry. Or they're angry over having to express sympathy towards people who lived, worked, and are now incarcerated in a world that, to the bulk of the population, seem as far away as Mars. Some might feel it's embarrassing to America. Iranians might resent the hikers because their case is sometimes portrayed as an embarrassment to Iran.

But the root of the hate seems to come from the hikers' -- and their families' -- inability to convince the American public that they were hiking in a remote and dangerous place with the intent to learn and explore, and not, as many think, with smug invincibility or the intent to rabble rouse or even spy. Instead of a remote Iranian border, they should have hiked in one of the thousands of safer areas on this planet, the argument goes, and not been stunned when Iran dealt "what they deserve."

Said one skeptic, on one of my previous posts on the hikers, "They were just out getting some exercise... really... they didn't realize they crossed the border into a sworn anemy of the US since 1979... I'm having a really hard time having any sympathy for these fools." Unless the hikers' supporters can overcome that sizable hurdle, the backlash is, unfortunately, likely to continue.

Even in the wake of the boys' sentencing, as the families wait to see if a last-ditch appeal works a miracle, message boards are flooded with hiker hate. If past dispatches are anything to go by, this story will also see its share. To anyone about to hit 'publish' on a similar missive, remember this: Shane and Josh won't see it. Their already-distraught families will. Put your effort into writing something that helps get these men home so you can scold them yourselves -- for whatever reason.

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Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist, writing for Time and other publications. She previously covered Africa, India, the Arab Spring, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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