If you threw a party and a drunk guest broke a glass and urinated in the bushes, would you pull out a gun and demand money?
If this miscreant then claimed he was robbed, would you take his friends hostage until they called him a liar and paid a hefty ransom?
Of course, no reasonable person would detain people at gunpoint for a petty misdemeanor, then demand “restitution” under circumstances that would amount to extortion in any First World country.
But this is what Brazil basically did during the Olympics to American swimmer Ryan Lochte and three teammates, after a brouhaha at a Rio de Janeiro gas station.
Lochte was unfairly railroaded by Brazilian authorities and made to look like a Brian Williams-level fabricator by the U.S. media, when the reality is he made a stupid mistake and told an exaggerated story. A similar situation could happen to anyone.
Lochte’s woes began after a night of partying, when he and teammates stopped at a gas station. Apparently unable to find a bathroom, the swimmers relieved themselves on the building’s side. Lochte also slightly damaged a small advertisement probably given free to the station.
There’s no dispute Lochte created a mess – literally and figuratively. The 32-year-old, three-time Olympian should have known better. But his crime was “truly minor,” according to Benjamin Moore, a New York City-based criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. “Based on my analysis of the Brazilian law, the biggest offense Lochte could have committed was vandalism.”
Given that, what happened next seems heavy-handed. Security guards brandished guns; video footage and witnesses confirm this. The guards demanded money and the swimmers forked over $50. That sounds a lot like a robbery.
Lochte did himself no favors when he publicized the altercation and initially tried to sanitize the story by omitting his own bad behavior. But, Brazil authorities looked equally silly for doggedly investigating it, even though the gas station owner declined pressing charges. Apparently, protecting Rio’s already bad reputation takes priority over solving murders.
Unable to interrogate Lochte, who quickly skirted out of Brazil, police grabbed his teammates. Only after the swimmers allegedly confessed that Lochte lied and one paid an $11,000 fine, they were allowed to go. Doesn’t that sound like a shakedown?
“Pulling those kids off the plane and threatening them with prosecution was poor form on the part of the Brazilians and smacked of the sort of Banana Republic-ism Brazil should avoid,” Moore said. “The image was worsened when [a swimmer] basically paid a ransom to be released.”
It’s understandable if this is all news to readers. That’s because, even before all the details were known, the media had already convicted Lochte. Many of the same journalists who invariably are skeptical of American police claims whenever a criminal dies just accepted the notoriously corrupt Rio police’s version of events without hesitation. Jezebel, a popular blog that crusades against victim blaming, labeled Lochte an “international supervillian.” A Washington Post columnist who still vehemently defends disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong wondered, “Is there anything worse, in any country, than a bunch of entitled young drunks who break the furniture and pee on a wall?” Social media piled on the media’s counter factual narrative.
Why the double standard? Because we like to see celebrities fail.
“Having handled high profile cases, I’ve learned that there is often a great deal of schadenfreude when celebrities are involved, especially on social media but also in the legal system,” Moore said. “In spite of – rather because of – their notoriety, famous people do not get the benefit of the doubt. Hence, an issue that is truly minor … was amplified because of who these guys are.”
While we may never enjoy Lochte’s fame – or infamy – we could find ourselves in his shoes. That’s why what happened is so concerning.
In contrast to our media’s overblown response, the government’s was underwhelming. U.S. officials seemingly raised no objections while another government detained, harassed and ultimately extorted Olympic heroes who hadn’t even been charged with a crime. In fact, the U.S. Olympic Committee apologized to Brazil.
If a dispute arises while traveling abroad, what help can ordinary citizens expect from their government? America’s inaction speaks louder than words: Don’t count on Uncle Sam to bail you out. Instead, count your Benjamin Franklins. As the USA Today observed last year in a story on police’s custom of extorting Americans abroad, “The cliche of the corrupt foreign cop spotting an American driving in a rental car, and shaking the tourist down for a bribe, endures.”
Now that the world knows the U.S. government is complicit in this, its citizens are more likely to be targeted. Consequently, American tourists might be wise to keep Carnival off their itinerary.
Mark Grabowski is a lawyer and professor at Adelphi University who regularly writes on current events.