There's a lot of huffing and puffing about "indecency" these days in Congress. Our representatives appear determined to protect us from the filth spewed from radio and television programs today, but theirs is a narrow view of what constitutes decency. Words and images easily shut off at the press of a button are less likely to do injury than some recent indecencies that appear to have escaped the attention of our national hall monitors.
Torture is certainly more indecent than four-letter words, as is appointing a man renowned for perfidy to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies or putting an imperialist zealot in the United Nations.
The latest example of governmental indecency was the casual renunciation earlier this month of part of a decades-old international treaty intended to protect Americans when they are traveling abroad. That may not sound as bad as torture, but the motive behind the withdrawal was contemptible.
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations is a reciprocal agreement ratified by the U.S. in the 1960s that guarantees our citizens the right to seek help from a U.S. consulate if they somehow run afoul of the law when traveling abroad. An "Optional Protocol" in the accord gives the International Court of Justice in The Hague jurisdiction over disputes in such matters.
Protecting our citizens when they are outside the United States is the right thing to do, certainly. Some might even say it's the decent thing to do. And affording the same protections to foreigners who come to the United States is only fair.
But there's the rub. Despite enjoying this protection for Americans these 40 years, we've consistently overlooked the meaning of "reciprocal." The other guys are supposed to get the same courtesy when they're here. Those who run afoul of our laws are supposed to be allowed to contact the consul of their country for help. But it doesn't happen.
Instead of abiding by the law and notifying detained noncitizens of their right to contact their consul, we try them and lock them up. And sometimes we kill them.
Does that sound decent?
It didn't to Mexico, which has banned capital punishment. Finding a number of its citizens on death row in the United States — and finding itself ignored in its request that we honor our agreement — Mexico sued the U.S. in the International Court of Justice, saying that we had no right to put their citizens to death while denying them their protection under the protocol.
And — surprise! — it won. The World Court ruled that the United States must "revisit" at least the 51 cases in which the defendants ended up on death row.
Stalwart champion of international law that he is, an apparently chastened and embarrassed President Bush at first told Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales that ignoring yet another "quaint" international agreement might be too much and that we should reexamine the 51 death row cases.
After all, as the U.S. solicitor general noted, compliance with the Vienna Convention "serves to protect the interests of U.S. citizens abroad, promotes the effective conduct of foreign relations and underscores the United States' commitment in the international community to the rule of law."
In other words, it's the decent thing to do.
Yet scarcely a week later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent off a pungent memo to the United Nations announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the optional protocol.
What's behind this most recent back of the hand to the international community?
For one, Bush and his advisors don't appreciate international laws that complicate their lives. (Note, for example, their attitude toward the Geneva Convention. And the Kyoto treaty, the land mine treaty and the International Criminal Court.) Apparently they don't like to be told they're wrong.
But more than that, they're trying to protect our death penalty, a creaky system already teetering on the brink of collapse. Shot through with failure, exposed as entrapping the innocent, the mentally ill and those with drunk, drug-abusing, sleeping or simply incompetent lawyers, capital punishment has been wounded by U.S. Supreme Court rulings recognizing "evolving standards that mark the progress of a maturing society."
Worse, the high court recently cited "international standards" when eliminating our right to kill the mentally retarded and, last month, juveniles. Making it harder to kill foreigners, then, could be a crippling blow.
So, when the rulings go against us we take our ball and go home. Smart? No. Fair? Hardly. Decent? Doesn't seem so, but how can we know when the decency police are so busy with Janet Jackson's breast and Howard Stern's mouth?
Mike Farrell is president of Death Penalty Focus, which seeks to abolish capital punishment.
© 2005 LA Times