Friday, April 27, 2007

The Kiss Heard 'Round the World 

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard that authorities in India want to arrest Richard Gere to face possible punishment of up to three months in prison for... gasp!... kissing a woman in public. On the surface it seems silly. What Gere did with Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty is no different than what countless celebrities casually do every day in America. A kiss is just a kiss, and when we hear the news of the possible arrest here, our reaction is, "That's just ridiculous."

But... if Gere is to be excused for violating obscenity laws in India, we have to be willing to accept the flip-side of it. For example, if a native of Papua, New Guinea, decided to walk around the streets of New York pretty much naked, genitals flopping in the wind, should he be excused because, in his country, it's the norm? Wouldn't Papuans hear about this possible arrest for "indecent exposure" and just shake their heads, wondering, "What's that?"

What if a man from a country where the age of consent is thirteen comes here and has sex with a fourteen year-old girl? Here, he'd be branded a sex offender. Back home, he'd be planning the wedding.

Every country probably has at least one law that can be perceived as absolutely silly in another country -- and that even extends to laws against murder, because in some countries it's still perfectly all right to kill a man who offends your honor (or bangs your wife). Conversely, every tourist really owes it to themself to learn the local laws and customs before they visit a strange country. And, when in doubt, to say or do nothing they wouldn't say or do in front of their grandparents in the middle of their sibling's wedding.

Gere should have known better, especially since he's in the film industry, and India's kissing ban is well known in Hollywood, because it's such a subject of gentle derision. Let the dancers gyrate as erotically as possible, but if their lips get anywhere near each other, it's time for the Bollywood equivalent of NC-17. Or, more correctly, the Bollywood version of the Hays office -- which can and does remove such offending material.

The point is not to be the Ugly American and run roughshod over foreign customs. Should Gere go to jail in India for a kiss? Not necessarily. Should he be fined by the courts there? Probably.

This is not to say that all foreign laws and customs should be applied equally to foreigners, and I will make one exception. Countries that have the death penalty should be barred from executing foreign visitors, ever -- especially if those visitors are from countries without the death penalty, and particularly if what the host country finds worthy of death is barely a crime in the tourist's country. (Note: I don't make this exception for foreign residents; if you want to emigrate to another country, then you damn well better learn the meaning of "When in Rome.")

I'm thinking of the case recently in Singapore, in which an Australian national was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for drug smuggling. (He was found with less than a pound of heroin.) Despite protests and official wrangling on the part of Canberra, he was eventually executed. In that case, the Singaporean officials were dead wrong, pun intended. The better way to have handled the case would have been to deport
Nguyen Tuong Van, send him back to Australia and permanently ban from the country, with the warning that if he ever tried to come back, then he would face the death penalty. Executing him served no purpose, other than, perhaps, cutting into the tourist trade.

Yes, Van was stupid beyond belief for trying to take heroin into a country the government of which is so tight-assed about everything that chewing gum is a punishable offense. But because the standard of penalty is so much harsher in Singapore than in Australia (the smuggling is a crime in both countries), he should have been sent home for trial.

So, summary: if it's against the law in both countries, boot the offender's ass and let his or her own country deal with it. If it's just against the law in the country you're visiting... well, do your homework before you go.

Now, in honor of Bollywood, I give you a great musical number from the 1996 movie Mr. Romeo, featuring
Shilpa Shetty and Prabu Deva. And note what's about to happen at the exact moment the clip ends...

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