In December 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling on member states to abolish the death penalty. The passage of the resolution came after similar resolutions were passed by the United Nations Commission of Human Rights and after 91 countries had abolished the death penalty, including Albania and Rwanda, which outlawed the practice that year. But the United States, the world’s foremost skeptic of international law, voted against the resolution. Just four months later, its Supreme Court issued an opinion putting its stamp of approval on the death penalty.
And so it has gone. The United Nations has passed six resolutions calling for the end of the death penalty; the United States has voted six times against them; our death machine whirls on. Thursday evening, the Supreme Court issued a final order permitting Tennessee to electrocute a man to death; last week, North Dakota killed a man with a history of intellectual disability.
So it was a surprise to learn this week that President Donald Trump and his allies are, in fact, big fans of internationalism. In an interview aired on Monday, President Donald Trump declared his intention to end birthright citizenship on the grounds that we’re the only country to offer it. (He’s wrong about that; 33 countries, including most on the American continents, grant citizenship to those born within their borders.) Even more bizarre was a statement from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who reiterated the talking point that we are a global outlier on birthright citizenship. Trump can be excused as a brain-dead assh*le; but Graham’s statement had to go through policy consultants and communications assistants and probably a chief of staff, all of whom hold fancy degrees. The result was the following non sequitur: “The United States is one of two developed countries in the world who grant citizenship based on location of birth.”
The only appropriate response is, “Who cares?” Birthright citizenship is enshrined in our Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, where it is located, came out of America’s unique experience with chattel slavery; it has been interpreted in light of America’s unique (and frequently dishonored) ideal of serving as a refuge for the world’s oppressed people.
The peculiar conceit of the U.S. is that here in America, we don’t care what the rubes do in the rest of the world; it’s our Constitution and we’ll do with it what we want. We commit unilateral invasions and electrocute our felons and, on the rare occasions when the rest of the world has the temerity to sanction our crimes, we simply ignore them. This is not a particularly endearing characteristic, but it’s a core one nonetheless. It’s sometimes called exceptionalism; immaturity may be a better word.
And what’s extra bizarre is that the appeal to world practices is coming not from the liberal “globalists” (we prefer the term “humanitarians”), but from the conservatives who spent the Obama years mocking his alleged commitment to international comity. Apply their logic to any other right enjoyed by people in the United States and you’ll see the absurdity. The United Kingdom, for example, has a provision in its Bill of Rights protecting the right to carry arms. Would Republicans like our courts to start interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment in light of U.K. practices? The U.S. is one of just a handful of western countries that fully protect the expression of hate speech; should we join the rest of the world and start banning swastikas and Holocaust denial?
We do things a little differently around here, some of which make sense given our country’s history, many of which should, by logic and global consensus, be abandoned.
If conservatives want to have a conversation about joining that global consensus, abiding by international law and generally abandoning its stance of John Wayne thuggery, I’m all ears. But something tells me that Trump’s proposal to create a class of stateless children is not of a piece with a broader plan to strengthen our ties to the world community. Maybe the globalists really have taken over the federal government; maybe, as the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has written, “the cruelty is the point.”
I’ll leave it to smarter people than I to explain why Trump’s proposal is unspeakably cruel, and wildly unconstitutional to boot, but in this small, specific way, it’s not just cruel and unconstitutional; it’s also just plain absurd.