Book Excerpt: 'A Crime So Monstrous'

The following excerpt of E. Benjamin Skinner's book was provided to ABC News by the publisher, Free Press (a division of Simon and Schuster).

Imagine that Robert E. Lee's staff officer had not lost his three cigars in 1862. Imagine that the general's Antietam battle plans, which were wrapped around those cigars, hadn't wound up in Union hands. Alternatively, imagine that George McClellan hadn't finally used the providential intelligence to stop the rebels in the bloodiest battle in American history. Imagine that a thus disempowered Lincoln was unable to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Imagine that the South had won and spread slavery to the Western Territories.

Imagine that, eighty years later, Japan limited its racist empire to Asia, rather than attacking Pearl Harbor. Imagine that Hitler, unchecked by the Confederate States of America, rolled back the steady advance of freedom since England abolished the slave trade in 1807.

Imagine, in other words, a world where the ideologies that endorsed slavery still stood.

None of these scenarios happened. And yet: There are more slaves today than at any point in human history.

In his book Disposable People (1999), an unassuming scholar named Kevin Bales claimed that there were then 27 million slaves — whom he defined as human beings forced to work, under threat of violence, for no pay — worldwide. His figure was staggering, even when measured against other terrible epochs. At its height under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Gulag held 5 million slaves. The Nazis enslaved 12 million in total, but culled them so rapidly that far fewer were alive at any given time.

The year 1861 was the only one when the total slave population rivaled today. That year, there were 3.8 million slaves in the United States — a greater number than in the rest of the world combined. In Russia at the time, though most of Europe had abolished slavery, there may have been 23 million serfs. That estimate, from a Bolshevik writer justifying the excesses of the Communist revolution, is deceptive. A serf was a subject, albeit diminished, under law, and often owned property; a slave was himself mere property under law. Human bondage is today illegal everywhere. But if we accept that one slave exists in a world that has abolished legal slavery, then, if we look closely, we soon must accept that millions of slaves exist. Bales acknowledges that his figure is far from exact. John Miller, America's antislavery czar, told me, "These victims don't stand in line, Ben, and wait for a census to count them." Bales pleaded for criticism, hoping to be proved wrong. Subsequent regional studies have only buttressed his claim. A detailed, 2005 International Labour Organization report found 10 million forced laborers in Asia alone. Whatever the total number, it was big. And, to me, meaningless.

"The death of one man is a tragedy," Stalin, who knew something about the subject, supposedly maintained. "The death of a million men is a statistic." Hence the first reason for this book. I could not prove the definite number of slaves, and I would not try. But I might show what their slavery meant.

The second reason for paying attention was because my government did. A week before the 2000 election, President Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. For the first time, an American president assumed global abolition as a national burden. The new law called for programs to eradicate slavery, and mandated that the State Department annually rank countries based on their efforts. Tier One was for those showing progress toward abolition. A Tier Three ranking, reserved for reprobate nations that countenanced bondage, could trigger sanctions. John Miller, whose office wrote the report, intended to "name and shame" foreign governments.

"Name and shame." It's a far cry from the nineteenth-century interdictions of the Royal Navy. Over a period of seventy years, 2,000 British sailors died freeing 160,000 slaves.

But the modern American war on slavery was nonetheless historic. Whereas President Lincoln used emancipation to win foreign government support for the Union, President George W. Bush used the nation's strength to win foreign government support for emancipation.

John Miller, his knight in the effort, began working on the issue at the same moment I did. Thus, in this book I have woven his years of discovery in with my own.

Three caveats. First, regarding language. For Bales's statistic to mean anything, "slavery" has to mean something. I adopt his definition. I met dozens of people who described themselves as slaves. Their stories were often tragic. Many were child laborers. Many faced terrible abuse. But, in this book, those who failed to meet all of Bales's three criteria — compelled to work, through force or fraud, for no pay beyond subsistence — are not slaves.

Second, regarding scope. The book is grossly insufficient in its reach.

Over five years, I visited twelve countries and recorded interviews with over a hundred slaves, slave dealers, and survivors. They were not a monolithic bunch. They had lives. Herein I tell the stories of only a few.

There are millions that I never reached, and dozens of afflicted countries that I never investigated.

Finally, regarding facts. I changed eight names. In Europe, "Tatiana" asked that I use pseudonyms for her and her fellow slaves as well as her traffickers; and I changed the names of my fixers in the Romanian and Turkish underworlds. In India, "Gonoo" asked that I change his name and that of his eldest son. Slaves in preindustrial societies like those in front-line southern Sudan rarely shared a Western sense of time, thus their personal chronologies may be imprecise. I was able to cross-check most of their stories, but not all, and I have noted inconsistencies when they occurred. I converted currencies into dollars, adjusted for inflation.

I altered no other details.

The first thing that John Miller ever said to me was that slavery is the greatest human rights challenge of my generation. He was right. But in the first couple of weeks in any new country that I visited, my greatest challenge was finding a single slave. After talking to the right people, often shady characters, I went through the looking glass. Then the slaves were everywhere. I often wondered whether I might have saved those that I found in bondage. With one exception, I did not. I withheld action to save one person, in the hope that this book would later save many more. Writing that now, it still feels like an excuse for cowardice.

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