The Da Vinci Code: Bestsellers and International Law
Now, my recent effort doesn’t qualify as a bestseller, but it certainly has a fair bit to say about international law. But what do actual bestsellers say about international law? Well, this week in lieu of seeing the movie I finally read The Da Vinci Code. Like others before me, although I enjoyed it as a thriller, I was troubled by the book in other respects. In my case, however, it wasn’t the mixing of fact and fiction surrounding Catholic and Christian doctrine that raised my hackles, but author Dan Brown’s often inaccurate portrayal of international legal issues [warning – plot discussions follow, so cease reading if you want to find Mr. Brown’s errors on your own]. For example, check out his discussion of the relationship between French law enforcement activities in France and the U.S. embassy on pp. 61-62:
Fache [the fictional head of la Police Judiciare (DCPJ)] and the ambassador locked horns regularly over shared affairs of state—their most common battleground being law enforcement for visiting Americans. Almost daily, DCPJ arrested American exchange students in possession of drugs, U.S. businessmen for soliciting underage prostitutes, American tourists for shoplifting or destruction of property. Legally, the U.S. Embassy could intervene and extradite guilty citizens back to the United States, where they received nothing more than a slap on the wrist. And the embassy invariably did just that.
The United States has a right to extradite its own nationals back to the United States if they commit a crime in France? Really? Doesn’t that flip the concept of extradition on its head, not to mention its reliance on the flawed notion that U.S. citizenship somehow provides protection when committing crimes under French law in France? But wait, there’s more after the jump.
The U.S. Embassy in Paris is a compact complex on Avenue Gabriel, just north of the Champs-Elysées. The three-acre compound is considered U.S. soil, meaning all those who stand on it are subject to the same laws and protections as they would encounter standing in the United States.
Now, I’ll admit that I often encounter this sentiment among my students, but the notion of the embassy’s extraterritoriality has been defunct for nearly a century. Moreover, it’s not like the existing rules (i.e., inviolability) could not have served Mr. Brown’s plot purposes equally well. Instead, I suspect that I’ll now have even more work to do disabusing students who’ve read this book of the notion that embassies are little bits of foreign soil.
And I’m not even going to burden you with The Da Vinci Code’s discussion (p. 146) of its protagonists’ possible request for “temporary asylum” from his own embassy. Nor, do I think the wholly unbelievable set of interactions (pp. 332-335, 350-352) at the airport in Kent, England warrants much discussion, since it’s truly fanciful to have French police officials engaged in French law enforcement activities on foreign soil, not to mention having them actively direct how local British law enforcement behave.
Mistakes like these do get me wondering, however, why popular culture – novels, television, movies, etc. – so often gets international law wrong? Shouldn’t we expect authors or screenwriters to put the same effort into researching or hiring consultants on international law as they seem to do for domestic law? To counter-act what I see as a disturbing trend of pop culture garbling international law, let me propose that Hollywood and the Publishing Houses come to Opinio Juris when they’ve got questions about how to portray international law or the international legal order. I would be happy to consult for them on such weighty matters and I’d expect they could benefit equally from the comments of our readers. So, what do you say Hollywood, I’m offering you a chance to avoid future gaffes like those made by Mr. Brown. Just ask us for help, and we’ll be sure to provide you with assistance (fee structure to be negotiated separately).