There's a headline I never expected to write. Among my many criticisms of the New York Times editorial page, after all, I would never until today have accused it of being soft on sexual violence.
Yet what exactly are we to make of today's editorial calling on the governments of Sweden and Britain to "walk away" from the allegations against Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy the past several years evading extradition to Sweden for questioning in a rape case?
The editorial, which deals with the absurd finding by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Assange is the subject of arbitrary detention (though he is not detained, and Sweden's basis for asking that he be so is certainly not arbitrary) does not argue that Assange is innocent of the Swedish charges. Those allegations remain incompletely investigated as a function of his lack of cooperation. Nor does it argue that the UN Working Group is correct in its assessment that the "deprivation of liberty of Mr. Assange is arbitrary and in contravention of articles 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 7, 9(1), 9(3), 9(4), 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
In fact, precisely what the editorial does argue is a little opaque. It begins by noting the fact of the working group finding and the criticism of it in Britain. It goes on to note that "Mr. Assange and his backers say what is really going on is an attempt to extradite him to the United States to face charges for WikiLeaks’s role in receiving and publishing tens of thousands of secret American military and diplomatic cables in 2010." The editorial then observes that "Neither Sweden nor the United States has filed formal charges against Mr. Assange."
Beyond noting that the working group criticized the lack of diligence by Swedish prosecutors, who had not traveled to London to question the fugitive there, the editorial really makes no further analytical points before concluding: "In the end, the United Nations ruling, dubious as it may seem, might offer a way for Sweden and Britain to walk away from a case that has not made much sense from the outset."
Walk away? Not made much sense from the outset? I confess myself perplexed by these ipse dixits. Why would Sweden, a sovereign state that chooses both to have and to enforce rape laws, "walk away" from a case in which its authorities believe there are allegations of sexual misconduct on Swedish soil and towards Swedish citizens? Why does the Swedish desire to investigate these matters, and question the suspect, "not ma[ke] much sense?" I would have thought the New York Times would take the position that it's the failure to investigate allegations of gross sexual misbehavior that doesn't make sense.
Surely, the Times cannot be suggesting that this case "should be drawn to a close" because Assange has successfully evaded the law long enough and a government has made its embassy available to him to do so. Even more surely, the Times cannot be suggesting that the founding of Wikileaks and the exposure of United States government secrets is a great enough good to justify "walk[ing] away" from inconvenient sex crimes allegations.
But what is it suggesting then?