The United States is of two minds about defectors. It appreciates the sentiment but not the hassle. Every defector is confirmation that America is the promised land. Too many defectors -- a whole world of tired, poor, huddled masses is yearning to be free -- and the promised land gets crowded.
Worse, too many defectors can be bad for business. Embassy business, for example. U.S. embassies in the Soviet bloc discourage locals from jumping their walls and seeking asylum. It means added work and headaches. A group of 16 Siberian Pentecostals lived for five years in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Embassies don't like running hostels.
But hurt most of all is the business of business. If every Soviet trading vessel on the Mississippi brings a ship-jumping, what happens to the grain trade?
Accordingly, defection is tolerated, not encouraged. There are exceptions, of course. For some defectors, mundane considerations don't apply. Nureyev and Baryshnikov bring glory, and you can't buy that. Unfortunately for Miroslav Medvid, he doesn't dance.
He is a jumper. Medvid is the (Ukrain sailor who twice jumped ship in New Orleans only to be twice returned by U.S. authorities. He is now on his way to an unhappy fate in the Soviet Union.
More sophisticated defectors come better prepared. An acquaintance of mine, a psychiatrist, planned his escape from the Soviet Union for many years. He signed on as a ship's doctor and made a break for it at a West African port. He bolted from his group on shore leave and, after a taxi chase, made it to the American Embassy.
Had he acted on impulse? embassy officials wanted to know. If he left the embassy right away, he could say he had gotten lost and no one would be the wiser. Had he been drinking? Did he have a fight with someone on board? I planned my whole life for this moment, replied Victor, and for emphasis he pulled down his pants and produced his trump -- his underwear, into which he had sewn his medical diploma. That seemed to convince the staff. He got a 10 for seriousness (if only an 8.5 for form) and a ticket to the U.S.A.
Sailing to the U.S.S.R. is poor Medvid. Just a sailor with no English. When he turned up on shore, he was carrying merely a glass, screw-lid jar containing his watch and and some pieces of paper. The immigration agents were not impressed. They sent him back.
Now, these agents are either very hard or very stupid, and they are in for some punishment. But this is not just a case of human error. The rules are absurd.
First, when a guy jumps 40 feet from a ship, that, and that alone, should be considered a request for asylum. And if he subsequently offers his signature on a piece of paper, so much the better.
After four days back aboard ship, Medvid was presented to American officials for re-interview. This time he said he wanted to go home. This being the land of freely expressed will, his request was granted. It should not have been.
At least not immediately. That should be rule two: not every wish deserves immediate honoring. Consider this analogy: the suicide jumper perched on a ledge who refuses rescue. Shall we tackle him and drag him to safety? Of course. By what right do we forcibly thwart his will? The answer is easy. He has no single "will." If he really wanted to die, he wouldn't be on the ledge: he would be lying on the sidewalk, and the question would be moot. And if he really wanted to live, he wouldn't be on the ledge either: he would be inside. He is on the ledge because he is of two minds. Society then decides to ally itself with the life-seeking mind and often locks him up for a couple of weeks, waiting for that mind to retake command of the other.
By the time Medvid was brought back for a final interview by U.S. officials, he had no doubt been threatened (if not worse: his wrists had been cut) and, according to the psychiatrist's report, heavily drugged. This Medvid said: I want to go back to the Soviet Union. Days before, another Medvid had said: I want to come to America. Which was the real Medvid? Why not wait at least a few days to find out -- at least enough time for the effects of the brutalization and the drugs to dissipate?
And if we were to err on the side of the wrong (West-seeking) Medvid, so what? He can always walk back to a Soviet Embassy and go home. Spies do it. As in suicide, only one choice is irreversible.
And third, why must a defector have Soviet officials present during his interviews? Look at it from Medvid's point of view. The first time he jumps, he is interviewed by Americans only, he asks to stay, and they send him back kicking and screaming. He is then re-interviewed by Americans, his final chance, and this time a Soviet embassy official is always present. Is he supposed to confess now his rejection of the Motherland and his embrace of America? He's only a sailor, but he's not crazy.
A few more Medvids and the old joke -- definition of a Soviet trio: a quartet returned from abroad -- may lose some of its truth. We are giving enormous attention to that shiny new paint job for the Statue of Liberty. Why not divert some effort to preparing a better welcome for those who believe its inscription? The Medvid rules -- that wretched man deserves some memorial -- are a start.