The Simpsons and Diplomatic Law: From Embassies to Consulates

The Simpsons and Diplomatic Law: From Embassies to Consulates

[Ralph Janik is a researcher in international, European, and constitutional law at Sigmund Freud Private University Vienna. Twitter: @RalphJanik]

From A for Alcoholism to Z for Zombies – first aired in 1989, the Simpsons creators have obviously covered countless different topics in the longest running TV series in US history.  Among them are also several classic themes of international law, first and foremost diplomacy. TV Producers in general seem to love this topic: Just think of the “A Case of ImmunityColumbo or the “Representative BrodyHomeland episodes (to name just two examples). As for the Simpsons, Bart vs Australia and Steal this Episode both cover diplomatic law, albeit from slightly different angles. 

Bart vs Australia

In the first episode (from 1995), the Simpson family’s son, Bart, calls a random boy in Australia to ask him whether the water runs into the opposite direction when flushing the toilet over there. Since Bart did so by making a “collect call”, i.e. one where the person on the receiving end has to pay, not the one making it (today’s younger generations probably have never heard of such pre-smart phone era communication method so one might have to do some explaining when discussing this episode in a classroom) amounting to 900 US $, the ultimate result is a diplomatic incident between the United States and Australia. To ease tensions and avoid a prison sentence for Bart (yet another topic worth discussing under Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the US, as the only UN member, has not ratified, but we’ll save that one for a later blog post on The Simpsons and Human Rights), the State Department sends Bart and his family to Australia where he is supposed to apologize for his fraudulent behavior. 

It is here where things get interesting: at the beginning, and in one of the probably most famous scenes (see below) in The Simpsons’ history, Homer jumps back and forth at the exit/entry of the US embassy while shouting “now I’m in Australia, now I’m in America. Australia-America, Australia-America, Australia-America!” until he is punched in the face by an annoyed US security guard who justifies this drastic reaction by saying “You’re in America, we don’t tolerate that kind of crap Sir!”.

Embassies vs. Exclaves/Enclaves

The scene takes us right to the basics of diplomatic law–after all, the reason why Homer starts to jump around is that the security guard not only got the law wrong when he hit him in the face but also when he corrected Bart, who told him that “your sign’s broken, we’re already in Australia”, by replying that “actually, Sir! The embassy is considered American soil Sir!”. To clarify it once again (this blog post is not only written for law nerds!): Embassies are neither exclaves nor enclaves, i.e. foreign territory of the respective (sending) state. Rather, they are inviolable, meaning that the police or other agents of the state where they are located (the receiving state) “may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission (Article 22 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (hereinafter VCDR)). This rule even applies in extreme circumstances, be it murder inside the embassy (hello, Inspector Columbo!), fire, or natural disasters (in contrast to consulates, more on that below). So, to some degree, they are, at most, de facto exterritorial, but certainly not de iure. The security guard thus had no right to hit Homer in the face (even if he had gotten the law right that would not have been justified, yet another topic for a The Simpsons and Human Rights blogpost).

The saga does not end here. Bart is not only supposed to apologize in public but also needs to accept being kicked in his (naked) buttocks with a huge boot – “booting”, a supposedly Australian tradition – to make up for all the troubles he caused (you may have guessed it, yet another human rights-related topic reminding one of the European Court’s 1978 Tyrer v UK judgment, where the Court decided that even comparatively “mild” forms of corporal punishment are still degrading and thus prohibited by Article 3 European Convention on Human Rights). 

Protecting Embassies

Things get out of control, however, because Bart avoids the kick by leaping away and showing his naked butt, on which he also wrote “don’t tread on me”, to the angry mob standing outside the embassy to see him being punished. Infuriated, the crowd breaks down the fence and the Simpsons family narrowly escapes with a helicopter – a reference to a famous picture of US staff leaving the embassy in South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

From an international law perspective, the VCDR is again triggered here: Not only is the respective receiving state prohibited from entering an embassy without the sending state’s consent, it also has a due diligence obligation to protect it from interferences by private persons (Argo/the Tehran hostages crisis would be yet another example here). In Bart vs Australia, it remains unclear whether Australia has fulfilled its “special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity“ (Article 22 (2) VCDR). 

Steal this Episode

Some 20 years later, The Simpsons producers revisited the topic of inter-state relations in the Steal this episode episode. Here, Homer manages to escape to the Swedish consulate after being arrested by the FBI because he illegally downloaded and showed movies in the Simpson family’s backyard. The Swedish consul welcomes him and his family by saying that “this consulate is like being on Swedish soil” and “your Hollywood studios are the real thieves”.

This time, the show does get the law right. So does the FBI, which does not enter the consulate but tries to put pressure on the consul and Homer by having Judas Priest play a live concert (singing “respecting the law, respecting the law…copyright law”) in front of the consulate. Yet, the consul enjoys the song (“Swedes love death metal…it reminds us of death!”), unnerving the FBI chief who reacts by saying “damn those peace prize giving fish smokers(thereby confusing the Swedes with the Norwegians). He then decides to wait in front of the consulate until Homer gives in, causing his wife, Marge, to say how tired she was of “being trapped in this embassy”, prompting him to correct her that they were in a “consulate … consulates are regional offices which serve the embassy in the capital”. During their ensuing talk, Marge admits that she was to blame for his arrest since she had sent a letter to Hollywood asking them for forgiveness for her husband’s illegal downloading. Disappointed by what he considers as a betrayal, Homer decides to leave the consulate voluntarily where he is handcuffed right outside the gate.

Consulates vs. Embassies

There is a lot of law to unpack in this episode as well (it may obviously also serve to discuss intellectual property law). To begin, Homer’s delineation of consulates is basically correct; more precisely, the difference can be described as follows: “Whereas diplomatic relations regard the political relations between States as such (Art. 2 VCDR), consular relations centre at the relationship between foreigners, i.e. citizens of the sending State and the receiving State”. This does not change the fact that the FBI may not enter the consulate without Sweden’s approval. The essential difference is that consent is presumed “in case of fire or other disaster requiring prompt protective action” (Article 31(3) Vienna Convention on Consular Relations). 

Back to 1989: Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the Holy See

Just like Bart vs Australia, this episode has a true background: in 1989, Panama’s former dictator and drug lord Manuel Noriega’s attempt to escape invading US forces by taking refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (due to its special status, its diplomatic missions also have their own term and character). Just like in Steal this Episode, US forces respected its inviolability but refused to give up. Instead, they indeed played rock music (the alleged playlist can be found on ), what has been described as “music torture” (human rights again!). Ultimately, Noriega could not stand it – not only the music itself but also the resulting sleep deprivation – and surrendered (he remains in a US prison this very day). Still, this operation (“Nifty Package”) is generally considered as one of the more shameful chapters of US foreign policy: the invasion of Panama itself was condemned by the UN General Assembly since it lacked a sufficient legal basis and playing rock music in front of the Holy See’s diplomatic premises is certainly not a textbook example of exemplary behavior. 

The Simpsons in the Classroom

All in all, The Simpsons definitely deserves to be mentioned in law schools. From my own experience as a teacher (and the feedback I have received over the years), I can recommend showing short clips from movies and TV shows with international law-related aspects since they stay in student’s minds by putting some life into at times dull treaties and other legal texts. While The Simpsons might not be particularly interesting for post-boomer generations, some scenes are definitely suited to prompt legal debates and serve as introductions for topics like the law of diplomacy and many more (more to come in later blogposts. Spoiler: apart from human rights, we shall also discuss the episode that features the International Court of Justice, a perfect starting point to explain why and how it is different from the International Criminal Court, yet another common misconception).

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Lucas Roorda
Lucas Roorda

Pedantic sidenote: ‘Steal this episode’ might not get the law as wrong, it certainly gets metal wrong by calling Judas Priest ‘death metal’ (it’s not, it’s heavy metal, specifically NWOBHM – death metal is bands like Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel). Death metal would be much more effective as torture music (at least for non-metalheads), but also more likely to be enjoyed by Swedes.