One of my guilty pleasures is the NatGeo show Locked Up Abroad. Although based on actual events, the show follows a predictable arc. Young Anglophone is approached on the ramparts of the old world by a shady chap, usually while partying. Young Anglo is asked to transport drugs or illicit items out of country. Young Anglo reluctantly agrees, swallowing condoms of cocaine or stuffing gold bars down their trousers. At the airport, smuggler starts to shit his/her pants from fear. The body narrates what the mind cannot. Smuggler is eventually caught at customs, faces questioning, poops the cocaine out, and is locked up in a sorry excuse for a hellhole for 15 years.
It’s as formulaic as a merry-go-round, and the animals aren’t even glossy. After I’ve watched three episodes in a row, I know what it feels like to eat a whole tub of Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate Fudge Chip frosting, my dignity tranquilized like a dangerous bear. But I’ll stick up for my dignity and say that the show is great. I get to imagine myself roughing it in some foreign jail, bartering for my life like a Prophet, and living the cosmic reverse of my simple, uneventful life in California. It’s the gossamer promise of showbiz: be someone who you are not.
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About a year ago, Anders Breivik blew up and gunned down 77 innocent citizens in Oslo. It was the deadliest shooting in Norway since World War II. Arguments in his trial have already been heard, and a sentence is expected no later than August 24th. But, according to the Economist, which featured this breathless video, there’s a possibility that Breivik could be spending his jail time in “the nicest prison in the world”:
Because we think that someone’s always soliciting our opinion, people have questioned the ethics of keeping a despicable, pathologically selfish mass-murderer in a detention facility where rock-climbing and studio time are de rigueur. I might complain with them. But the real shocker to me is the sentencing guideline in Norway. The most heinous offense in Norway gets a punishment of 21 years in confinement. Twenty-one years! If you’re lucky, you get to spend those 21 years convalescing at a twee prison Martha Stewart might have made had she been incarcerated just a wee bit longer.
To put Norway’s sentences into perspective, consider this: Gregory Taylor, who in 1997 stole food from a church kitchen, was sentenced to 25 to life under California’s Three Strikes law. (He has since been released.)
To put the effectiveness of Norway’s sentences into perspective, however, consider this: according to Think Progress, in America 67% of former inmates are re-arrested, and 52% of former inmates are sent back to prison. In Norway, the recidivism rate is close to 20%. Touché, America.
But let’s not turn this civil fireside chat into a discussion of the bruises suffered by the American penal system. It’s a grisly affair. But we carry our black eye with pride. In fact, we wear a band-aid beneath it, to prove it’s not a boo-boo. Over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good at putting the band-aid anywhere but the cut.
Instead, I’ve poked around and found some examples of curious laws and punishments in the rest of the world. Where possible, I’ve verified that these examples are fact-based. Where impossible, I’ve gotten lazy and left the legwork to proud sleuths who get a kick out of proving other people wrong. (That’s your cue to be extra-vigilant, maestros.) Roll over Norway, it’s about to get weird.
“In Bahrain, a male doctor may legally examine a woman’s genitals but is forbidden from looking directly at them during the examination; he may only see their reflection in a mirror.” (Source.) Bahrain is an island nation off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, women are often considered instigators when they are raped by men. It is only natural, then, that a male doctor would try to befuddle the hypnotizing rays of the female pudenda by looking at them obliquely, through a mirror. (Loose lips sink ships.) Some hipster doctors, swimming against the technology current, have even started wearing 2-D glasses in an effort to blunt the siren song coming from the dangerous delta. Still, the painfully awkward moments of waiting for an old man to stare at your opened legs through a mirror are offset by nothing at all.
Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore. (Source.) Owing to “serious maintenance problems,” the Singaporean government outlawed the sale and possession of chewing gum in 1992. Given how clean Singapore is, we can only offer guesses about how this environmental crisis erupted, and how viciously it scarred the Singaporean psyche and streets. The law prohibits “bring[ing] or caus[ing chewing gum] to be brought into Singapore by land, water or air from any place which is outside Singapore,” but generally overstates the measures that even the most devoted citizens are willing to take to bring chicle laced with xylitol into the country. Leery of communist infiltration, however, Singapore’s coast guard regularly patrols its waters on the lookout for dark, inflatable vessels carrying crates of Big Red.
Much of the Internet is illegal in Myanmar. (Source.) Well, then. There’s not much funny about that. Internet censorship in Myanmar is rampant. The Global Post described it as one of the seven worst censorship offenders in the world. One blogger and internet cafe owner was given a 20-year sentence for posting an unflattering cartoon of a general. Some journalists who travel through Myanmar are slapped with hefty, albeit nominal, sentences and released in Soviet-inspired show trials. People refer to this practice as “sending a message.”
In Paraguay, “dueling is legal provided both combatants are blood donors.” (Source.) Now here’s a smart law. The educated world knows that dueling is a dignified and practical way to resolve disputes. Don’t want to pay your insurance premium after you’ve smashed your dumpy car into your neighbor’s Opel, drunk, on a Tuesday morning? Sign up as a donor and duel the man. Dueling is especially effective among men: as soon as “honor” is at stake, the other guy is forced to duel you, even if he didn’t want to duel in the first place. (He probably didn’t.) In this particular law, I also sense a sepia-colored nostalgia for natural selection and population checks. It’s like Darwin and Malthus jumped into bed and birthed some furry little Paraguayan gremlin. While we’re at it, I think it’s high time to revive the screamingly popular practices of foot-binding and bloodletting, if only to even out our retro pain-party with a bit of verisimilitude.
What are some laws that drive you crazy, make you do the jitterbug?