In Law and Popular Culture

Ten years ago, one of the best television series in history signed off after 7 thrilling seasons. Every political junkie is fan of ’The West Wing’ (TWW), a multiple Emmy Award-winning series about a fictional US president and his senior staff. It brings a unique mix of humor, current events and dry policy discussions, made exhilarating through the magic of Aaron Sorkin’s language. And don’t get me started on the actors and characters. Episodes and story lines are used in schools to teach politics, government, civics. I have used ‘The West Wing’ in my international law courses for years, with video and all. This is the Case of Abdul Shareef.

The West Wing Plot

Several international legal issues are put into a thrilling sequence of events that merited a movie of its own. Which is what I did with TWW clips. The US government uncovers a plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, first thinking that the White House is the target. Upon further investigation, the intelligence agencies connect the would-be terrorists to Abdul Shareef, Minister of Defense of the fictional state of Qumar, Abdul Shareef. Mr. Shareef funded and masterminded several past terrorist plots and is planning more. The first thought of the US administration is to arrest Shareef on his upcoming visit to the US. However, when this becomes a bit of a legal challenge, President Bartlett is nudged towards a plan to assassinate Sharif by his military adviser and Chief of Staff, despite his moral sensitivities. His overcoming those moral objections becomes an important part of the suspense, but he ultimately authorizes the murder of Shareef by special forces on non-US territory. In the aftermath the President continues to struggle with the moral issue, and actual problems arise when it becomes clear that Qumar knows what went down.

The Legalities of Assassination – Immunity

Terrorism in all kinds of forms is a defining issue of our time. This TWW storyline illustrates the difficulty of combating terrorism, and adds a twist. Because of Shareef’s status as a minister of defense, the US was not allowed to arrest, let alone prosecute Sharif. ’But he is coming here, he’s coming here!’, shouted the President at his lawyers. Sorry, Mr. President, but under international law as reaffirmed by recent case law, such high officials have immunity from domestic courts, regardless of what they are accused of. It was suggested that someone like Sharif could forfeit his immunity by his actions. But no. This may be frustrating, but it is the by-product of the equality of states and the need for smooth and stable international relations. And these immunity rules go as far back as Ancient Greece. For some further reading on immunity, click here.

The Legalities of Assassination – Self-defense

The main issue was the legal justification for the assassination. Since 9/11, the argument of self-defense against terrorists has been debated and prodded from every angle, with no clear outcome other than acquiesce in the self-defense actions of states like the United States. The unique nature and scale of modern terrorism has put international law as to the law of self-defense, well, on the defensive. Despite the practice off states, international lawyers have not really agreed on the exact boundaries of the right to self-defense that every state has.

In TWW, a lawyer was consulted (instead of the White House Counsel!?) and that is when the legal discussion went a bit off the rails. In response to the President’s argument that ‘Article 51 of the UN Charter says every nation has the right to wage war to defend itself’ the lawyer says that ’the Article is incumbent on wars being declared.’  Ouch. Because that is just not the law. Get your legal references straight Sorkin! Even more egregious is what the lawyer says a minute later on why she can’t foresee all the consequences: ’Because most of international law doesn’t exist yet.’ Double ouch. I am not even going to entertain that one. But Aaron Sorkin needs an international lawyer (call me!).

If you want the transcript of this TWW case, or want to show the movie for your class or any other group of interested friends, contact me through the Contact page. Any other thoughts on The West Wing and/or this case? Let me know through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. 


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  • […] te laten zien hoe de Amerikaanse overheid werkt, en zelf heb ik het ook gebruikt in verschillende volkenrecht vakken. De populaire musical ‘Hamilton’ is geschreven door een enorme TWW fan – Lin […]

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