Government officials in Haiti have picked a fine time to start taking charge of their forlorn nation. Like Keystone Kops arriving late to the scene of a bank robbery and collaring a good Samaritan pursuing the robber rather than the perpetrator, Haitian authorities have arrested 10 American Baptist missionaries attempting to help their earthquake-devastated country. Governance, thy name is incompetence.
The 10 missionaries, mostly from two Idaho churches, were arrested Jan. 29 while trying to transport 33 Haitian orphans by bus over the border to the Dominican Republic. A Haitian judge charged the group Thursday with kidnapping and criminal association. Conviction for kidnapping carries a penalty of life in prison. The jailed missionaries were trying to get the children out of the wrecked country and bring them to another orphanage over the border, where they could receive proper care.
The Jan. 12 temblor that struck Haiti left more than 212,000 dead and 300,000 injured. The nation's government, corrupt and ineffective in normal times, was AWOL after the catastrophe. President Rene Preval was not seen for a week. Into that vacuum poured humanitarian efforts underwritten by American money and manpower. The Baptist missionaries offered their willing hands and were attempting to alleviate human suffering when they were taken into custody.
Even with minimal due respect for Haiti's sovereignty, it defies common sense to apply kidnapping charges against religious volunteers acting to save children from further trauma and privation amid a devastating natural disaster the local government can't handle. Law applied without recognition of relevant circumstances amounts to tyranny, a condition that is all too familiar to most Haitians.
This scandal can be filed in the bulging folder marked "No good deed goes unpunished." To their credit, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have shown no such cynicism. In a letter to President Obama explaining that their volunteers in Haiti were motivated by a religious impulse to "love every person [God] has created," the Christian do-gooders beseeched the president to "do everything within the authority of your office" to free their brothers and sisters.
To date, the feckless State Department has done nothing useful to defend these U.S. citizens. "Obviously, this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system," a disinterested Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on Friday. Au contraire, Mrs. Clinton. What should be obvious is that this is a matter for the secretary of state, whose job it is to protect Americans and American interests abroad.
Former President Bill Clinton - who is not only the secretary of state's husband but also happens to be the U.N. envoy to Haiti - has been equally unhelpful, saying, "I think what's important now is for the government of Haiti and the government of the United States to get together and work through this. ..."
Here's an idea - why don't the Clintons mobilize their considerable powers of office and help Haitian officialdom understand what normal people automatically comprehend: The Baptist missionaries were sacrificing their blood, sweat and tears in Haiti not for their own sake, but for those who are suffering. Haiti would be well-advised to free the missionaries before the world concludes that charitable service and contributions are unwelcome in that dismal land.
If the Clintons don't care enough to act, the president should intervene personally.