In this May 2010 photo, American hikers Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh… (Associated Press )
The story of Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, the American hikers who in July 2009 crossed the border — inadvertently, all evidence suggests — from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran and were imprisoned for espionage, is back in the headlines. Shourd, who was released in September on humanitarian grounds and after paying $500,000 in bail, has been promoting a "rolling hunger strike" to remind us that Bauer and Fattal remain in Tehran's Evin Prison without a trial date or access to their lawyer.
A website set up to tell the hikers' story includes testimonies by President Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as a video from Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) urging Bauer's and Fattal's release. A Facebook community dedicated to their plight has 27,000 members advocating their freedom.
But to read just about anything else online about the case is also to encounter a strikingly different sentiment, in the form of indignant bloggers and commenters characterizing the hikers as "morons," "idiots" and "self-indulgent wackos" who have no one but themselves to blame for their imprisonment in Tehran. So vehement is this disapproval that it lends itself to its own coinage and category. Call it "hiker hate." It may represent a minority opinion (nutty comments usually do), but it sure doesn't seem like it.
Not that the story doesn't raise legitimate questions. It's unclear, for example, who put up the money for Shourd's bail. There's also confusion about Shourd's decision not to return to Iran for trial, which had been scheduled for May 11 and was then postponed without explanation. Shourd says she has post-traumatic stress disorder and that Iranian authorities had arranged for her to be tried in absentia. But hiker hate has engendered a different spy-thriller explanation.
"I kinda wonder whether they were working for the CIA … who goes on a hike in the Iraqi/Iranian mountains?" posted a commenter on a recent Los Angeles Times story. Elsewhere, observers appeared preoccupied with the fact that the hikers were Jewish, with their history of activism on behalf of Palestinians, and with an article Shourd wrote describing a meal with Iraqi refugees in Yemen in which she expressed her disapproval of the American invasion of Iraq by saying she felt "ashamed of what my country has done to your country."
Never mind that statistics show that most Americans feel the same way. To hiker haters, this is an imprisonable offense, and they don't care who the jailers are. (If you don't believe me, scan the comments at the bottom of the online version of this column.)
The big question, however, is also the simplest: "What were they doing there?" Vacationing; that's all. Iraqi Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region, is also "the other Iraq," a popular holiday destination for people living in the Middle East. And Bauer and Shourd, a photojournalist and English teacher, respectively, who'd been living in Damascus, the Syrian capital, were just that.
Along with Fattal, a friend who'd visited them in Damascus, they traveled to the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniya and then to the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a crowded tourist spot several kilometers from the Iranian border. Hiking out from there, the three have said again and again, they inadvertently wandered beyond an unmarked border with Iran, where they were captured by soldiers.
As locals have explained to reporters, venturing beyond the waterfall was nearly unheard of. The trio's decision to do it anyway represents not just a spirit of adventure but what seems like a particularly American form of hubris, one that, ironically enough, is common to those with an interest in defying the "ugly American" stereotype. They're the types who learn the native language and never take organized tours, the types who smile politely at photos from your Princess cruise and then whip out a snapshot they took of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
So is hiker hate about blue versus red politics? About America-right-or-wrong patriotism? Or maybe the annoying earnestness of UC Berkeley graduates (Cat Stevens doesn't help).
To some extent, sure, but I think deep down it's it's about justifying the American reluctance to travel outside our comfort zones.
In the United States, recent data indicate that only about 30% of the population holds a passport. Those who travel off the beaten path often force the rest of us to make a case for our provinciality. The antipathy, conspiracy theories and blame tossed in the direction of the hikers make that case very nicely.
Too bad it has nothing to do with the case at hand.