Law & Order: Eurozone

Whose bright idea was it to make a cop drama that's one part murder mystery, two parts The Hague?

There are two conceivable premises for a television series based on global multilateralism: forcing obnoxious foreign ministers to live together in the same beachfront property for a summer, or allowing an elite team of forensic investigators to solve violent crimes in different countries. Unfortunately, a fist-pumping, shot-pounding Sergei Lavrov will have to wait -- as we've now been treated to the second, less satisfying option. If not quite in the Sharknado realm of implausibility, the new NBC drama Crossing Lines, which debuted on June 14, really isn't all that far from it.

The premise is that at a time when overly guarded jurisdictions and national sovereignties have got in the way of solid police work in Europe, the International Criminal Court (ICC) assembles a cosmopolitan cracker-jack cop squad, headquartered in a church-like basement at The Hague and tasked with tracking baddies across the continent as a kind of CSI: Rome Statute. (Suffice to say, no such force exists; ICC cops remain a thing of Fetou Bensouda's imagination.)

As in any good ensemble crime series, each member of the team is equipped with his or her own unique -- but complementary -- skill set, ranging from psychological profiling to computer hacking to state-of-the-art weapons expertise. Helping keep the forensic work to a cool 40 minutes-plus-commercials is a dedicated helicopter (which I doubt the real ICC can afford), and a remarkable device that holographically recreates crime scenes using laser beams. (If one of these has already been invented, then it'd shave a few decades off the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's fact-finding mission.) The team's true superpower, however, is their transnational legal authority that trumps anything that local gendarmeries or interior ministries can throw at them.

That sounds exciting at first, until one consults Article 5 of the actual statute establishing the court, which stipulates that the ICC's jurisdiction encompasses only genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Needless to say, these apply to state or para-state institutions. Yet the targets of Crossing Lines, at least five episodes in, have included an American serial killer, a mobbed-up Irish vixen offing wealthy gentlemen of leisure with polonium-210 (ripped from the headlines!), and a roving fleet of anonymous truck drivers keen on staging couples' fight clubs. While it's true that our radioactive colleen owes a cryptic "debt" to a mysterious Russian who is being set up as the series super-villain -- no doubt with an organized crime and/or FSB connection -- she's still not quite Ratko Mladic or Omar al-Bashir material.

Indeed, not one of Crossing Lines's perps would ever be hauled before the real ICC. "It is a crime of aggression that is ongoing, systematic and cross-border," says Detective Major Louis Daniel (played by Marc Lavoine), a Gallic Nick Fury to this incipient band of eurozone Avengers. He's referring to his first case involving pretty women who are abducted in one city and then ritualistically slaughtered in another. "This is exactly what the ICC does." Except that it isn't. It's what Interpol does, or more precisely what normal police agencies under Interpol supervision do.

Of course, this is a midsummer NBC series, not a documentary -- and if Crossing Lines's only problem were its ham-fisted remit, then this might be excused in favor of other dramatic attributes. As it happens, the narrative arc of the show is banal, the cultural and sexual stereotypes sprinkled throughout are both silly and vulgar, and the dialogue seems written in varying dialects of eurotrash. Consider the origin story unveiled in the two-part pilot which involves both the team's formation and its first assignment tracking a serial killer. All it takes to shake Michel Dorn, a nationally indeterminate senior ICC inspector played by a sententious, Auden-quoting Donald Sutherland, of his quite reasonable skepticism about the legitimacy of a transnational FBI is to have a few poignant lines of an old report he authored on Kosovo quoted back to him by a yummy Italian anti-mafia cop named Eva Vittoria. She's there to make the moral case for an ICC police force, and boy does she make it.

"What man doesn't like a woman to tell him how brilliant he is?" says Daniel, as he assures Vittoria of her powers of persuasion. For some reason, series creator Edward Allen Bernero, himself a former Chicago cop, seems to think that feminine wiles are sufficient at speeding the wheels of international justice in the Netherlands. "A woman's mind is ... quite extraordinary," Sutherland's homme serieux relays to Daniel about the impression Vittoria has made on him, this as he he hands over the nifty ICC badges that make the team's authority official. Let's just hope these guys never have to prosecute Asma al-Assad.

Alas, other characters in the show are no less prone to kicking the viewer in the shin with cliche. Our protagonist, Carl Hickman (William Fichtner, who really does deserve better), is a brilliant criminal profiler formerly with the NYPD but now forsaken by the department after his hand was horribly mangled in the line of duty. When we meet him, Hickman is employed as a trash collector at a carnival in Amsterdam, yet one seemingly able to divine the life story of a bullying  philanderer at a mere glance. What he's doing in sanitation will be illuminated in due course, but lest we have to figure out all by ourselves that Hickman's your gritty, tortured kind of lawman, he tells us in a voice-over: "The only thing keeping me alive was anger and morphine." What's the Dutch for "I'm getting too old for this shit"?

Then there is the miniature Good Friday Agreement brewing in the form of a thwarted romance between Tommy McConnel, an Irish Traveller with a specialty in tactical weapons, and Sienna Pride, a well-bred English rose whose Oxbridge education has made her one of Scotland Yard's ablest interrogators. I've watched enough Downton Abbey to accept Sienna and Tommy's upstairs/downstairs chemistry, but I couldn't contain my laughter at this tossed-off exchange:

Tommy: "Do you even have a gun?"

Sienna: "Never really needed one."

Tommy: "Brits!"

Now, Tommy is described earlier as having served on the police force in Northern Ireland, a place where British authority is not really synonymous with grinning unarmed Bobbies on the beat. But then, the fact that he refuses the offer of a stiff drink from Hickman is enough to prompt the show's only American representative to goggle in disbelief and recall a notorious characteristic of the Irish. (Luckily for us, Tommy's got impossible-to-miss scars from all his "bare-knuckle clan fighting," so there's at least one satisfied stereotype for you.) 

Why did I say the romance between Tommy and Sienna is thwarted? Because she gets killed off in episode one, providing everyone else with an inaugural tragedy to bind them together and underscore the very personalized nature of their work. Not that they need it. Monsieur Daniel's backstory, for instance, involves the murder of his young son via a car bomb planted by an ex-Russian army colonel, Alexander Dimitrov, the spooky offstage Russian I alluded to above, whom Sutherland's character has taken it upon himself to chase around the globe. And have I mentioned the German computer whiz, Sebastian, who's got both an illegitimate child by an old girlfriend and a gambling problem?

Crime series aren't meant to be George Eliot, I grant you, but the crimes at least have to be interesting and compelling. There is no excuse for why the culprit behind the first spate of serial killings turns out to be a nebbishy U.S. embassy official in Paris with questionable diplomatic immunity, easy access to State Department residences abroad, and some very serious mommy issues. A real Portnoy the Ripper, he is, since he buys women's apparel under the cunning handle of "John Smith," which, as Hickman helpfully explains to Pride, is "about as anonymous a name as you could use. But in America." Good to have that cleared up, then.

So far, my favorite guilty pleasure plotline features a gang of faceless long-haul truckers whose idea of a good time is forcing couples with children on the autobahn to battle each other to the death using sticks and pipes. The winners have to live with the guilt of their murders; the losers get to be buried in a mass grave (which is at least war crime-like), and their orphans handed off to the wicked car mechanic whose clientele furnishes the unwilling combatants to the psychotic teamsters. The motive? The mechanic's childless wife always wanted a family of her own, and I guess the procedure for adoption in Germany involves too much bureaucracy.

Not everything about Crossing Lines is the fault of poor execution or lousy exegesis of international law. There's also an intrinsic reason as to why a show about eurozone dragnets can't work, which happens to be the same reason that a show like the original Law & Order worked so well for so long. The latter was set in a single city, extraordinary enough in snapshot form, but also in a state of cultural transformation: the New York of David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg.

Gotham itself was the lead in an ever-changing ensemble cast of interracially-partnered detectives, tough but politically-interesting district attorneys, smarmy defense counsels, insightful shrinks, and perp after glorious perp, ranging from misunderstood crackheads to conniving society wives. Crossing Lines fails because, apart from everything else, it crosses too many lines all at once and never stays put long enough to give even one of its many intriguing world capitals a chance to become part of the action.

My advice: stick the team in Cyprus for the rest of the season and have them investigate Dimitrov's banks accounts.



Apartheid Amnesia

How the GOP conveniently forgot about its role in propping up a white supremacist regime.

On Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, the world is celebrating the former South African president and cheering for his recovery. The U.S. Congress even managed a rare display of bipartisanship for the occasion, with members of both parties taking turns to laud Mandela as they stood in front of the Statue of Freedom in Emancipation Hall. "At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," said Rep. John Boehner (R-OH.) "He never lost faith in the strength of the human spirit," added Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).Today, Nelson Mandela is a celebrated elder statesman that both Democrats and Republicans heap praise on.

This wasn't always the case. When Mandela was imprisoned and struggling to end apartheid, the Republican Party -- through the policies of the Reagan administration and the work of party activists -- opposed U.S. sanctions against the white supremacist regime. Though they didn't support apartheid by any means, they turned a blind eye towards the cruelty of the system and failed to support Mandela in his time of greatest need. Today, Republicans will cheer on Mandela, but the Republican Party's historical relationship with South Africa, and Mandela in particular, exposes a sad chapter in the history of the American right.

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In 1985, Mandela's 22nd year in prison, then South African President P.W. Botha gave a speech affirming apartheid's rejection of "one-man-one-vote" and defending Mandela's imprisonment. The infamous "Rubicon Speech" fueled ongoing rioting in South Africa and prompted the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's party, to call for the United States to impose sanctions.

President Ronald Reagan and the American right were not sympathetic to that request. "Our relationship with South Africa ... has always over the years been a friendly one," Reagan said in a 1985 radio interview, rejecting any change in policy. Televangelist Jerry Falwell went one step further and visited South Africa the week after Botha's speech to insist that sanctions were opposed "in every segment of every [South African] community."

Right-wing ambivalence toward apartheid in the 1980s was a product of South African support for the United States during the Cold War. In 1969 and early 1970, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor, formulated a policy of increased communication with and relaxed criticism of the white regime. The apartheid system was unlikely to change anytime soon, the Nixon administration thought, so there was little point in pressuring a valuable ally who was working with the United States to contain Soviet influence in Africa.

When Reagan came to office in 1981, he launched a policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa designed by Chester Crocker, his assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In line with Nixon's policy, constructive engagement was intended to deepen ties between the United States and the apartheid government in South Africa by prioritizing trade. Crocker was a true believer in the power of trade to open up the country to reform: It would eventually become too expensive to discriminate against blacks in the workplace, he thought.

Officially, the goal of the Reagan administration was to end apartheid. But its behind-the-scenes work revealed a startling degree of comfort with the South African regime -- or at least ignorance of how apartheid worked. For a July 1986 speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Reagan rejected a moderate State Department draft and instead instructed his speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, to draft a version arguing that Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) employed "terrorist tactics" and "proclaims a goal of creating a communist state." (Buchanan later dismissed Mandela as a "train-bomber" and defended the hardline position.) Reagan himself never seemed to really understand the moral repugnance of apartheid. He described the system in a 1988 interview with ABC's Sam Donaldson as "a tribal policy more than ... a racial policy."

While the Republicans were dragging their feet, the Democrats were leading the fight against apartheid. In 1985, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) went on a tour of South Africa that included a visit with Winnie Mandela to discuss her imprisoned husband. Upon his return, Kennedy introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act that eventually became law. In July 1986 hearings, then Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE)  thundered at Secretary of State George Shultz: "I'm ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this ... I'm ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy."

As it became clear that constructive engagement was failing, even moderate Republicans began to shift. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) broke with Reagan and argued for a sanctions program. Eventually, in 1986, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with enough votes to override Reagan's veto. "I think he is wrong," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), explaining his break with the administration. "We have waited long enough for him to come on board."

Reagan, however, was not alone. An expansive Republican network supported a hardline stance on South Africa. From the Heritage Foundation to Republican lobbyists to the televangelists leading the religious right, the Republican Party -- with a few courageous exceptions -- didn't think that ending apartheid was as important as maintaining economic relations with South Africa.

The conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation was the main source of intellectual fodder for this position. During the debate over sanctions, Heritage's director of foreign policy studies, Jeff Gayner, argued that the United States should "cease advocating the release of Nelson Mandela" because of his links to terrorism and communism. Michael Johns, the African and Third World affairs policy analyst at Heritage (who would later go on to be a leading spokesman for the Tea Party), carried on the fight even after sanctions had been passed, arguing that capitalism was "the most efficient and promising anti-apartheid program."

Lobbyists hired by the South African regime also played a role in the perpetuation of the idea of Mandela as a threat. These groups lobbied and publicly attacked politicians who opposed the South African regime's interests. Republican operatives Marion Smoak and Carl Shipley led an aggressive campaign in 1982 to defeat Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-MI) because of his support for sanctions. Later, Smoak and Shipley hired now-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) as a lobbyist after he returned from his Mormon mission in South Africa.

Some of today's most recognizable political operatives also played a role in pushing the apartheid government's agenda. In 1985, following his term as national chair of College Republicans, Grover Norquist was brought to South Africa for a conservative conference, where he advised a pro-apartheid student group on how to more effectively make its case to the American public. While there, he criticized anti-apartheid activists on American college campuses: Apartheid "is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground," he said, adding that South Africa was a "complicated situation."

A young political operative named Jack Abramoff was also involved. From 1986 to 1992, South African intelligence services spent $1.5 million per year to fund the International Freedom Foundation, a lobbying group championing South Africa where Abramoff served as president. One of the group's missions was to delegitimize Mandela's ANC by linking it to Soviet communism. It was Abramoff who oversaw the full-page newspaper ads taken out by the organization attacking Mandela and who helped organize House committee hearings on the dangers of the ANC. When a 1995 Newsday investigation revealed the South African intelligence backing for the operation, Abramoff and advisory board members -- including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and James Inhofe (R-OK) -- pled ignorance.

But those who came closest to open support for apartheid were televangelists from the religious right. The socially conservative policies of the Afrikaans regime made South Africa a special cause for many televangelists. Jerry Falwell praised the "Christian country" for its abortion policy in the 1980s, and after his 1985 visit, called for "reinvestment" by U.S. companies and urged his followers to buy Kruggerand coins to help boost the South African economy.

Jimmy Swaggart, another popular televangelist, told his viewers that the conflict in South Africa was nothing less than a struggle between Christian civilization and the Antichrist. In his presidential campaign in 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson called advocates for sanctions the "allies of those who favor a one-party Marxist Government in South Africa." After his race ended, he became even more direct: "There needs to be some kind of protection for the minority which the white people represent now," he said in 1992. And in 1993, he said on his show, "I know we don't like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don't have it all that bad." At a time when the Dutch Reformed Church, the traditional theological backer of apartheid, was reversing its position, the American religious right provided new religious cover -- and they made the case to millions of Americans who tuned into their shows.

*  *  *

When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in 1988, Republicans tried to sweep their support for his erstwhile jailers under the rug. President George H.W. Bush hosted Mandela at the White House and praised him as "a man who embodies the hopes of millions." Mandela gave a speech to Congress at which the assembled legislators, including many who had once voted against economic sanctions, interrupted him with three standing ovations and 12 rounds of applause.

Today, leaders of both parties have once again cheered for Mandela. What he really could have used was their help when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, trying to end apartheid.  

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