The Problem with “Crossing Lines”

by Kevin Jon Heller

After weeks of anticipation, I finally had a chance to watch the premiere of Crossing Lines, the new NBC drama about a police unit that works for the International Criminal Court. As a police procedural, the show is not bad. William Fichtner is fantastic as always. Production values are extremely high. Bringing together detectives and investigators from a number of European states is a nice idea. And all the actors have nice accents.

But as a show about the ICC, Crossing Lines is an unmitigated disaster.

The problem, of course, is with the basic premise. I could almost accept a show that gave the ICC a police force; after all, who among us doesn’t wish it had one? But I cannot accept a show that invents an ICC police force that investigates, in the words of one of the executive producers, “topical crimes and illicit global trades such as plutonium poisonings, serial killings, kidnappings, human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Indeed, the two-hour pilot has the “ICC team,” as it’s called — complete with ICC badges — investigating a serial killer who has killed four women in European capitals.

I was very curious to see how, if at all, the writers would get around the inconvenient fact that the ICC team will investigate crimes over which the Court has no jurisdiction. At first they just avoided the issue: after the newly-recruited Fichtner character points out that the ICC usually investigates war crimes and genocide, the leader of the team simply replies, “for now we’re going to try something…” He then changes the subject and explains that the team is comprised of the best and brightest detectives from various Western European states. (Africa’s worst nightmare!)

But then things get ridiculous. Initially, the ICC — via Donald Sutherland, who plays some unidentified but clearly important role at the Court — refuses to sanction the team because the powers-that-be are worried its investigations will “usurp the power of sovereign states.” (I guess the whole notion of consenting to the Court via signing the Rome Statute is too difficult to explain — or too dramatically unsatisfying.) The pretty Italian investigator protests, pointing out to Donald Sutherland that he once wrote a report about Kosovo in which he said the ICC was the only place the “mothers and wives of missing Serbs” could turn for justice. (I’ll let my friend Marko Milanovic mock Donald Sutherland’s concern for the fate of Kosovo’s Serbs. I’ll simply note the disappearance of the Court’s temporal jurisdiction.) The leader of the team agrees — and adds in defense of the serial-killer investigation, “it’s a crime of aggression that is ongoing, systematic, and crosses borders – this is exactly what the ICC does.” (Um, no.) Donald Sutherland relents, and quickly returns with “an order” signed by a “magistrate” that permits the team to investigate the killings over the objection of national police forces. (Magistrates at the ICC?)

You don’t have to be an ICC expert to realize that the show’s treatment of the Court’s jurisdiction is a fiasco. And there are numerous minor errors in the show that also collectively annoy: it says the ICC is based in Holland (technically correct, but the Court itself says it’s in the Netherlands); the ICC logo is wrong, with the Court’s initials instead of the scales of justice; the Court’s parking sign is only in English; there is apparently a dusty, brick-lined basement in the Court that isn’t being used for anything; the team has a machine that makes a holographic reproduction of a crime scene (pretty sure that’s not in the ICC budget!); etc.

Having spent nearly four years writing television in Hollywood, I accept the need for dramatic license. But Crossing Lines is not just wrong — it’s wrong in a way that can only harm the ICC. Very few Americans outside of academia understand how the Court functions, and that lack of understanding no doubt helps explain why so many Americans oppose the Court and perceive it as a threat to US sovereignty. This show will only reinforce their ignorance and their skepticism. Even worse, for those Americans who do not reflexively oppose the ICC, it will saddle the Court with unrealistic expectations. Why shouldn’t the Court have a police force? Wouldn’t that make it work better? Why doesn’t it address serious crimes like drug trafficking? (The show should be very popular in Trinidad and Tobago.) Why should it be limited to investigating crimes committed after 1 July 2002? Why doesn’t it have nifty technology that would make investigating crimes so much easier?

What I find the most baffling is that, as best I can tell, there was absolutely no reason for the producers to set Crossing Lines in the ICC. Doing so is simply a counterproductive distraction. Why not set the show — which, as I said, is a relatively interesting police procedural — at Interpol? Interpol doesn’t have a police force either, but it’s certainly not impossible to imagine states giving it one. And Interpol is, in fact, involved in nearly all of the crimes the show wants to explore.

I have no idea whether Crossing Lines will survive. The premiere’s ratings were less than impressive. But rest assured, dear readers: your humble reporter will stay on the case until the bitter end.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/06/24/the-problem-with-crossing-lines/

11 Responses

  1. I give it six months tops before Texans start petitioning their state government to make it a crime for ICC Police to make arrests in Texas and withholding all funding from Texas State Police for any cooperation with the ICC Police.

  2. This post reminds me of law school classes where professors would take some completely minor issue and blow it out of proportion to make a fine legal point. No matter that no law student in the classroom could actually grasp the legal issue, because they all simply lacked the background knowledge and training to appreciate the legal finesse behind the professor’s reasoning. The law professor remained undeterred, looking completely ridiculous but convinced of the importance of her mission.
     
    The entire post is hilarious beyond words, but this paragraph tops them all:
    “You don’t have to be an ICC expert to realize that the show’s treatment of the Court’s jurisdiction is a fiasco. And there are numerous minor errors in the show that also collectively annoy: it says the ICC is based in Holland (technically correct, but the Court itself says it’s in the Netherlands); the ICC logo is wrong, with the Court’s initials instead of the scales of justice; the Court’s parking sign is only in English; there is apparently a dusty, brick-lined basement in the Court that isn’t being used for anything; the team has a machine that makes a holographic reproduction of a crime scene (pretty sure that’s not in the ICC budget!); etc.
     
    Oh wow. Yes, that must seem very important to all of five people in the world who actually know these things. 
    In short, nobody cares – it’s a show, not a documentary about the Court’s jurisdiction or its basements.

  3. I haven’t seen the series yet but really enjoyed reading the post! It is actually interesting to see how international justice and internaitonal law in general is shown in movies. It gives a good idea on how that field of law inspires movie makers and scenarists… and on what happens if they don’t have an IL consultant while preparing the movie… Maybe Maya is right and noone but international lawyers care about those things but I think it’s a good (and fun!) exercice to examine movies from a diffrent angle for once.
    Those who are interested in this topic should definitely check out the website of the Centre for internaitonal law of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. A couple of months ago we have started a project consisting on commenting movies’ vision of IL. Here is the link to a couple comments : http://cdi.ulb.ac.be/les-films/ We’ll be posting new ones soon!
    Enjoy and thanks for the post!

  4. Maybe the show will become hugely popular and people will be so impressed by the ICC’s imaginary police force tracking down international bad guys there will be a demand for the US join it.  :-)
     

  5. I couldn’t agree more. The extent and nature of inaccuracies make it very damaging to efforts to bring about a correct understanding of the ICC. It is a shame because a decent tv drama could have had an important pedagogical role.
    If they had just made one major error, like giving the ICC a police force, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. In speaking to visiting students at the ICC, I always found reference to the inaccurate portrayal of Interpol in Blood Diamond a particularly effective way of conveying the challenge facing the ICC in securing cooperation and arrests. In this case, however, as you say, the show bore so little resemblance to anything to do with the ICC,  it’s hard to know where to start. The reference to serial killing as aggression was particularly priceless.
    I think the advice of Judge Kirsch still stands: if you want to understand the ICC, watch Law and Order. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to understanding the details of the criminal process vis-a-vis particular national processes, but the larger points are true: 1. The ICC is a court engaged in the same general business as national courts and . 2. The ICC depends on the effectiveness of the two pillars of the Court and the police powers. Crossing Lines, unfortunately and to quote one of the characters, more resembled the Justice League than the ICC.
     

  6. Response…At the beginning of the show, William Fichtner is picking up trash      using a stick with his right hand and a glove on the left. A few seconds later, the glove is on the right hand and the stick in his left. ??????

  7. It’s astonishing just how much Maya (commenter above) misses the point. I wonder if it’s on purpose? Almost a Q.E.D. finale for this post.

  8. Response…Thank you, KJH, you took the words out of my mouth! Not only is this show ridiculously confusing for no apparent reason for U.S. audience, one can only imagine what actual victims of crimes that DO fall in the jurisdiction of the court would think of this nonsense.  (If they ever had a chance to see this, would they expect this group to show up in Darfur next?  After all, they have  badges and a piece of paper from the ICC that apparently gives them special powers everywhere!)  
    If the producers wanted to support the ICC, they could’ve followed the example of Law and Order SVU, and done an episode that portrayed the ICC in a way that wasn’t 99% inaccurate. (The L&O: SVU episode was shot in part at the UN, involved child soldiers and IIRC, the ICC hook was that one of the suspects in the murder of a child refugees from Uganda was wanted by the ICC, and killed the child because the victim could identify the perp as LRA, or something like that.)  This show does the opposite by sowing nothing by confusion and giving the exact wrong impression about the ICC. Why bother?

  9. anyone notice that in the premier that in the beginning he was wearing a glove on his right hand then he was walking out of his camper and he had the glove on his left hand and a second later it was back on the right hand?! 

  10. Well said Kevin. I can’t believe that you actually watched the whole show… I’m stuck on 20 minutes and the idea of watching more makes me want to cry…
    Did you see that it was a French co-production? I’m so ashamed right now…
    Jim, I saw that too. Amateurs…
    Maya, of course you might be right and this is unimportant. But what is really important in life that deserves to be commented on? Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, this is an international law blog and this is what we speak about here. Leave us nerds to what we do, thank you very much…

  11. Thanks for the link Martyna, this movie & international law project looks very promising!

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