Turkish President Goes to Washington, PR Disaster Ensues By Evren Celik Wiltse
It is not usual for the US Senators to urge the deportation of ambassadors, or for the State Department to issue press statements condemning an official visit; however, probably less common is having security details of foreign dignitaries beat up civilians on US streets.
During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official visit on May 16, both his supporters and protestors gathered in Washington DC. Subsequently, in the Metropolitan Police Chief’s words, people witnessed, “a brutal attack on peaceful protestors at the Turkish ambassador’s residence.” Police reports showed 11 people and 1 policeman being injured, nine requiring hospitalization (video here).
Two days later, the Turkish Embassy issued the following statement:
Groups affiliated with the PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey have designated as a terrorist organization, gathered yesterday without permit in Sheridan Circle in the immediate vicinity of the Ambassador’s Residence, while the President of Turkey was visiting the Residence. The demonstrators began aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the President. The Turkish-Americans responded in self-defense and one of them was seriously injured. The violence and injuries were the result of this unpermitted, provocative demonstration. We hope that, in the future, appropriate measures will be taken to ensure that similar provocative actions causing harm and violence do not occur. [emphasis mine]
Several points stand out in this statement. First, somehow, the embassy staff could instantly assess the “affiliation” of various protesting groups, simply by looking out the window. Additionally, by their reasoning, as the groups expressed pro-Kurdish sentiments, they must have been affiliates of the PKK, the pro-Kurdish terrorist organization in the Middle East.
This is the quintessential example of a common logical flaw: guilt by association. Kurds today are dispersed across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. None of these countries have a democratic record they could be proud of. Given the highly publicized hardships Kurds face, associating any plea for justice and human rights with the most notorious terrorist organization cannot be fair or reasonable. Yet, the embassy slaps the PKK label liberally, implying the protestors were terrorists.
The statements of “gathering without permit”, and “aggressively provoking the Turkish-American citizens,” also signal significant problems. Normally, diplomats are trained to understand the main political, legal, socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the countries they serve in. At a minimum, they should know the basic constitutional rights and liberties in that country.
Any basic US Government textbook explains the First Amendment rights, and lists the landmark Supreme Court cases that regulate speech. Compared to other democracies, the US stands out as a more “liberal” polity, with minimal restrictions on free speech.
Probably one of the most recent cases that tested the limits of free speech in the US involved the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members were picketing at the funerals of US soldiers who had died in Iraq. They were shouting highly provocative, homophobic slogans such as, "God Hates the USA”, “Thank God for 9/11," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
Despite these outrageously offensive and provocative statements, the Supreme Court almost unanimously (8 to1) decided that Westboro followers had the freedom to express them. Among other things, justices based their decision on the fact that the members of the church “were "speaking" on matters of public concern on public property and thus, were entitled to protection under the First Amendment.”
In short, the protestors in Sheridan Circle last week had a constitutional right to voice their provocative statements, without any prior permit, as long as they did not trespass the Turkish Embassy grounds. Yet, Embassy’s statement lacks this basic knowledge of constitutional freedoms in the US.
Finally, the statement curiously mentions a single demonstrator as injured, who was a Turkish-American –read pro-Turkish government. Apparently, there is no need to mention the policeman and ten other demonstrators who were also seriously injured and hospitalized.
Turkish diplomats are facing increasingly more PR quandaries, as the Turkish President travels around the world with his security details throwing their weight around. Just last year, a similar incident took place at the Brookings Institute. His trip across Latin America left a trail of aggression. Protestors and students were gagged, beaten and zip-tied by the Turkish guards in Colombia, Chile and Ecuador, as the local officials stared in utter shock.
In fact, subsequent to these scandals, Mr. Erdogan’s security details were urgently issued diplomatic passports, which granted them certain immunity. Under normal circumstances, they should have carried the service passport, since they were neither diplomats, nor high-ranking public employees who are eligible for the diplomatic passport.
Diplomatic immunity does not shield foreign visitors when they commit crimes on US soil. The NYPD did not hesitate to throw prominent French politician and President of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) behind bars, when he was accused of sexually harassing a maid in his hotel room. His arrest and photos in handcuffs probably cost him the French presidency,
When it comes to Turkey, it is past due to replace words with deeds. That is, unless the US public wants another episode where the Turkish security guards hold protesting women in headlocks or kick them in the chest.
Evren Celik Wiltse is Assistant Professor of Political Science at South Dakota State University.