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Opinion Brittney Griner’s release should not lessen our focus on hostages

People on Thursday walk past a mural created by artist Isaac Campbell in Georgetown that features basketball star Brittney Griner and other Americans detained abroad. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, arguably the highest-profile American hostage ever, is finally free. In a swap negotiated by President Biden’s administration, Russia has released Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout, ending the basketball player’s nearly 300 days in captivity.

But this is just the first step back toward normalcy for Griner — and the first step toward ending state hostage-taking, an issue Biden earlier this year declared a “national emergency.” Indeed, while Griner’s celebrity has made millions aware of this foreign policy challenge, I worry that her release will dim that spotlight at a time when dozens more U.S. citizens are held hostage by adversarial states.

Among them is Paul Whelan, who Russia arrested four years ago this month on unsubstantiated charges and who faces another Christmas in a forced labor colony. Ahead of Biden’s announcement of Griner’s release, a senior administration official notified me of the impending good news — and the awful news that Whelan would not be included. “It was bring home BG or no one,” the official said, “and we made the only morally responsible [decision] of getting her home.”

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I don’t disagree with that choice, but it doesn’t make the outcome any less devastating for Whelan and his family. The unfortunate reality, though, is that these are the bad choices U.S. presidents will keep needing to make until we develop a credible deterrent policy to hostage-taking.

I know the administration is working on one, and that is in no small part because of the level of exposure state hostage-taking is finally receiving. But the government needs to work faster and in much closer coordination with our democratic allies whose citizens are also targeted by authoritarian states.

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That is because this is a rising problem, and one I have been warning about for years. Brittney Griner should be a wake-up call: No matter what kind of American you are — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, fame — you could be a target abroad simply because of your citizenship.

For now, though, we should all share in the relief and joy that Griner, her wife, Cherelle, and her family and friends must be feeling right now. Given my own experience of coming home after being held hostage in Iran, I know all too well it will be short-lived.

The difficult realities of freedom after prolonged confinement — reintegrating into previous routines, picking up old relationships, trying to heal from the trauma of imprisonment — are not something we discuss enough. Those challenges will only be amplified for Griner as she recovers in a society where she was already a celebrity but will now be treated as a megastar.

As a member of the media, and one who focuses more of my reporting than perhaps anyone else on hostage issues, I will not be clamoring for an interview with Griner; I would ask my colleagues to give her the same kind of space you gave me when I was released nearly seven years ago.

At the very least, I hope her family and representatives ensure her as much space and time as she needs before speaking to the world about her ordeal. No matter how much coverage the press gave to Griner’s case and however much impact we believe we made, she owes us nothing.

But I do have one request of her.

Many returning hostages choose to fade from view — fair, and usually wise. That won’t be a realistic option for Griner. So when she feels ready to have a public life again, I hope she decides to use some of her platform to advocate for more progress on our hostage policy and for the release of others still held by governments around the world. We need people with her reach and visibility in this fight.

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