WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits behind bars in a courtroom prior to a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Credit: Evgenia Novozhenina / AP

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

If your first reaction to an American being released from wrongful detention abroad is outrage or mockery, you might want to rethink your approach to patriotism and freedom.

Brittney Griner’s release from Russian prison, after a nearly year-long ordeal, was a great moment for a fellow American and her family. It should be easy to celebrate this happy ending to what had been an authoritarian horror story, and to welcome Griner home after the Russian government had clearly used her as a political pawn.

Does that mean wondering about the strategic wisdom of prisoner exchanges or the performance of the Biden administration in these negotiations is off limits? Of course not. This is America after all, not Russia, and we are thankfully free to criticize our government.

Some people, however, seemed awfully quick to question whether the WNBA star was worth bringing home. It was as if they prioritized knocking the Biden administration, and a female athlete who had previously said she wouldn’t participate in the national anthem in 2020 amid a national conversation about inequality, over celebrating one less American essentially being held hostage by another country.

There was a chorus-like response from some right-leaning pundits: So is Griner going to stand for the national anthem now, they asked pithily. One conservative firebrand tweeted that “Brittney Griner should be required to sing the national anthem and recite the pledge of allegiance as soon as she steps foot on American soil.”

Any potential trolling aside, it should be obvious that we don’t celebrate America by acting like Russia. We don’t stick it to Vladimir Putin and other autocrats by adopting their distorted view of patriotism that requires purity tests and stifles voices of protest.

There seems to be a not-so-isolated notion that we should somehow condition welcoming Griner home on her willingness to prove her love for the flag. That is a strange and frankly ugly form of authoritarian thinking dressed up as patriotism.

Equally ugly has been the notion that Griner somehow deserved her plainly ridiculous (and plainly political) nine-year sentence for possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, or that she did not deserve to be exchanged for a notorious Russian arms dealer. We have to wonder if Griner being a Black lesbian is a factor when some people question her value in the context of the prisoner swap.

To be clear, there is good reason to be upset that another American, Paul Whelan, was not included in this deal as well. But the key is to harness that outrage and maintain public pressure to secure the release of Whelan and other Americans wrongfully held in other countries. This can happen at the same time as celebrating Griner’s release, as Whelan’s brother proved in a powerful statement discussing the “catastrophe” of his brother’s continued detention.

“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” David Whelan said in a statement last week. “As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be free and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, acknowledged the Whelan family and others still waiting for the return of their loved ones. She and her wife “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul,” she said in remarks last week.

“Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole,” she said.

The joy of reunification and the pain of families still left splintered must fuel continued work from our government. The Biden administration has said it remains committed to securing Whelan’s release. As with Brittney Griner, those words must be backed up with action.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...