The Middle of the Country is In Play: Let’s Play
One of the lessons from last Tuesday’s election – the heartland is not indelibly red. And, as someone who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I am elated. Yet, if the Democratic Party is to keep the heartland in play in the 2008 Presidential election, it will, in short order, have to learn how to speak to the heartland.
Likewise, we, as a community of international legal scholars and practitioners, have much to learn about opening a more robust, meaningful conversation with the heartland. As many who read this blog live on the coasts, I thought that I would open with a few recent, isolated vignettes that illustrate local attitudes in middle-America toward international law, international institutions and human rights.
On Halloween eve, I distributed candy from home while my kids went trick-or-treating with friends. I was soon confronted with a young, girl, about 10 years old, dressed in red with swastikas taped on her shirt. Shocked, I asked, “What are you dressed as?” A Nazi, the girl replied. “Do you think that it is appropriate to dress as a Nazi?” I asked. “Yes.” “How would you respond if I told you that my extended family perished at the hands of the Nazis?” Her friends gazed; she giggled. I gave candy to everyone else in the group and locked the door. I hope that this is an isolated incident of bigotry – my fear is that it represents broader ignorance toward human rights and fundamental standards of human decency.
Oklahoma just re-elected (with 67% of the vote) Governor Brad Henry, a relatively moderate Democrat. Yet, in the waning days of the campaign, his challenger, Republican Representative Ernest Istook, desperately gasped for support by trying to incite popular distaste of international law and international institutions. He reminded the electorate that Governor Henry, following the lead of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, had granted clemency to Osbaldo Torres, a Mexican national who was the first of the Avena defendants to face execution following the ICJ’s decision. In debates and public statements, Istook labeled the Torres case a sad instance of Oklahoma “bowing to pressure from the Mexican government” and the “World Court of the United Nations.” Istook even featured Mr. Torres in his final television advertisement.
Why, in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the population generally conditioned to distrust international law? This is obviously a mega-question with undoubtedly a complex answer. Yet, are we part of the answer? Do we talk to the heartland? Do we spend time explaining to those who have lived and worked in the heartland their whole lives how international law, if not obeyed, will have real consequences in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and not merely Guantanamo or Iraq? I am not sure that we do in a meaningful way. Instead, we have ceded the airwaves to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, as poignantly stated by one wildly popular local talk radio host, “We cannot cover terrorism from South Tulsa; so, we have affiliated with Fox News.”
At last year’s holiday party, I had the opportunity to thank Governor Henry for the courage he had shown in the Torres case. He explained to me all the reasons that he had granted clemency. Above all, he said, the State Department took the time to explain how guaranteeing the integrity of the Vienna Convention protects Americans and protects Oklahomans. When those armed with intimate knowledge of international law take time to talk to the heartland, some will clearly listen.