Unintended Consequences

A pile of human bones that were confiscated from an anatomical reseller in West Bengal after they were connected to a string of grave robberies.

A pile of human bones that were confiscated from an anatomical reseller in West Bengal after they were connected to a string of grave robberies.

Many investigative journalists who start down this career path share a notion that the work that we do will make the world a better place. Maybe a story sparking a Senate hearing, a criminal indictment or a major product recall. When an investigation shines a light on a major injustice then a just society should step in to set things right. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. After almost ten years as an investigative reporter I no longer expect the world to change, at least not quickly. The mafia don that I caught on tape admitting to murder, remains free. An orphanage in Wisconsin has never been remanded for human trafficking even after I showed they imported children to America who were clearly kidnapped. Organ thefts are still common. And the only new regulation on the human skeleton business is that it’s no longer legal for people to carry human remains on the Delhi metro or their carry-on baggage. I realize now that change happens at a glacial pace and my words only incremental pressure to the process. I’ve accepted this.vI even embrace it.

However, barring change, there are also unintended consequences of releasing information about illicit activities. Occasionally a story will provide a road map for people to get involved in illicit or amoral businesses. I’ve seen it most frequently with an article that I wrote about how grave robbers in India steal bodies and sell them the corpses as anatomical models to medical programs around the world. Here’s an example: Last week a visual artist in Toronto wrote me this message:

Three  years ago i spent a few days chasing references cited in your Wired article, took a big breath and spent a bunch of money. today, i find myself in possession of a child skeleton from “Asia” i have not yet read the Red Market, but am about to. I will soon to travel to West Bengal to research a narrative for the bones in my possession. i intend to use the child’s body to tell a story about complicity. The narrative that led to this work includes, at the outset, our coincidence interests –and your concise ‘how to’. so, i guess i’m just emailing to say thank you.

When I wrote the piece, I certainly didn’t want it to be a roadmap for how to acquire skeletons.  The scary parts is that this is not the first time that something like this has happened. In 2010, a week after an earthquake killed thousands in Haiti, a doctor in Hawaii contacted me asking whether it would be possible to start up a company there exporting the bodies to America. He envisioned it as a way to fund some of the nation’s rehabilitation. In reality he was a profiteer who saw a surplus of corpses. Since then I’ve gotten two or three similar requests.

The underworld don who I mentioned earlier has gone on to be quite powerful in India. Every couple months people who are interested in requisitioning his services to facilitate a corrupt land deal ask me for an introduction. Many of them, no doubt, learned of his services through my article in Wired.

Of course, I’m best known for my work uncovering networks of organ traffickers around the planet. After my book The Red Market came out I got flooded with requests from people in Pakistan and Indonesia asking for the best way to sell their organs. I also got emails from prospective buyers in America. Eventually certain organ-advocates with libertarian bents asked me to endorse their plans to completely legalize organ sales around the world and head up a campaign to pressure the US senate to consider a proposal. All togehter I might have been able to make a career shift to becoming the best connected organ-broker of all time.  All of these offers more or less missed the point of what I was trying to do, which was cut back on the abuses of the body business.

I really don’t know what to make of how these stories circulate through the world. On one level I think that it’s important to continue to raise awareness of important social problems. But how do you deal with what happens when that information is misused? It’s a question that I haven’t yet resolved with myself. Part of me wants to run away from doing these sorts of supply-chain stories. While another part of me wonders if maybe the real problem is a social one in itself. The sad truth is that it’s easier to abuse information than it is to solve endemic problems.

For now, I continue onwards with my various projects, but I will do so cautiously. After all, I got into this business with the desire to make the world a better place, not a worse one.

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