Washington More than two centuries after America's first president, George Washington, dramatically freed his personal slaves, President George W. Bush grapples with the issue of involuntarily subjugated people. So will his successor, which leads me to ask:
Will human trafficking, as it is now known, ever end? Equally important, does anyone care?
Skeptics say no because demand is high and slaves are cheaper than ever in a globalizing world, not to mention that humans have a society-old practice of forcing others into servitude. The naysayers often snidely add that Americans lack interest in human trafficking; witness the topic's virtual absence from the current U.S. presidential campaign.
I disagree, especially as more Americans learn about the extent and severity of contemporary slavery; it afflicts 30 million people in countries all over the world, including the United States. As they grow in awareness, Americans cannot help but lift the banners of 21st-century abolitionists.
Abolitionism was on my mind as I traveled here to gather more information about human trafficking immediately after a stop in Mount Vernon, where I had spent time in troubled reflection at a recreated version of one of the estate's former slave quarters. That stark, cramped, privacy-free, bunk-bed environment was bad enough. But today's slaves often live in far-worse conditions, sleeping on dirt near animals, working in shackles, wearing rags, enduring beatings, suffering sexual abuse, eating scraps and perhaps realizing that they can be easily replaced for a pittance.
Have the leading candidates for the U.S. presidency - Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois - fully considered this abominable reality?
I wonder. Thus far, they have devoted insufficient attention in their campaigns to human rights in general. The issue of slavery, specifically, has been essentially invisible. That must change; the presidential candidates should make human trafficking a key part of their speeches and debates.
During the past several months, I have heard from hundreds of readers across the United States who not only care deeply about the tragedy of human trafficking but are eager to stand against it.
Robert A. Gilles of Spokane, Wash., said, "I want our country and its leaders to be in the vanguard of world opinion and action against slavery."
A doctor from Fredericksburg, Va., C.R. Massey, suggested the worthwhile idea of incorporating a focus on modern-day slavery in museums dedicated to historical aspects of the problem.
Charles Jacobs, the president of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, offered his advice and assistance.
Christine Loop, a literature and American history teacher at Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Va., informed me of a school project, an electronic magazine on modern slavery (http://celoop.tripod.com).
A minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canton, N.Y., the Rev. Wade Wheelock, urged me to spotlight one of his favorite resources, the Free the Slaves organization in Washington (www.freetheslaves.net), and its president, Kevin Bales, author of "Disposable People and Ending Slavery."
And James Renwick Manship Sr., chairman of the Washington Institute for Statesmanship Education in Mount Vernon, Va., brought me back to my starting point. He said that if all Americans had followed the leadership example of George Washington, then the vast majority of slaves in the United States would have been freed by the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately, they did not. Nor do enough people demonstrate such leadership today. However, the voices dedicated to eradicating modern slavery are unmistakably growing in number and volume.
U.S. presidential candidates, are you listening? Will you use your positions and prominence to elevate the profile of the struggle against slavery?