Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Wheels of Justice

Much has been written about the recent arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland, and about the ongoing extradition proceedings that may lead to his sentencing in California for a thirty-year-old rape case. I think just about everything has been said. There's nothing to add about the natural disgust most of us feel for what he did thirty years ago. Nor is there anything to add about the disgust most of us feel about the glitterati springing to a convicted rapist's defense. The transcripts and court documents are there for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the facts. What he did isn't a matter of spin, opinion, or belief; they are accountable facts and matters of public record. But one question looms large for me, and has gone mostly unanswered.

Why Switzerland? Why now, and not ten or twenty years ago?

In international affairs, Switzerland is like the eccentric rich uncle that shows up for holiday dinners, but otherwise doesn't get involved in family disputes. They maintain diplomatic relations with just about everybody, and do trade with just about everybody, but for most of the last five centuries have stayed out of wars or contentious relations with their neighbors. Not that they've gone pacifist: for most of the Middle Ages, Swiss pikemen were Europe's name-brand mercenaries, and in the modern era Switzerland's reserve army consists of damn near the entire adult population. Still, prosecutors the world over have long cursed Swiss privacy laws, and the Swiss authorities haven't really been super-diligent about looking for fugitives within their own borders. If you made it to Switzerland, you were a free man as long as you kept your nose clean. And if your money made it to Switzerland, so far as anyone else was concerned it essentially ceased to exist.

Recently, this has begun to change.

It's difficult to say with certainty when, or why, but it's clear that the Swiss electorate has had something to do with it. In 2002, they narrowly approved a referendum enabling Switzerland to join the United Nations as a full member. A similar referendum had gone down by a 3-to-1 margin only sixteen years earlier, in 1986. To me, that seems like the watershed. Then, earlier this year came the stunning news that Swiss authorities would begin to cooperate with tax fraud investigations in the United States, something that would have been utterly unheard-of ten years ago. And now, we see similarly unprecedented cooperation in an extradition case for an international arrest warrant.

I know approximately what has happened, and when,, but I am no closer to understanding why. Why, after close to 500 years of patiently minding its own business and politely telling the rest of the world to sod off, are they suddenly acting ... well, normal? Sure, I could point to a sea change in the Swiss electorate, but why did that happen?

There's a fascinating story in there that some journalist could write, if they could be pried away from the lurid details long enough to do the legwork. But lurid details are where the money is. And so, the question remains...

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