There is a sneering strain of anti-Americanism that runs through Britain’s media and polite society. Before regularly visiting and at one point living in the U.S., my understanding of what Americans were like was skewered by London’s pop culture and elite opinion. In brief, it went as follows: Yanks are arrogant beasts who act like the world is theirs for the taking and the rules don’t apply to them.
I was delighted to later discover that this is generally not the case. But every once in a while, I am reminded why this mentality pervades high-status British thinking. The diplomatic furor surrounding the death of Harry Dunn is one such example.
In August, Dunn, a British teenager, was hit and killed by a car driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American government agent working at a U.S. Air Force base in England. She had been in the country for only three weeks and admitted to police officers that she was driving on the wrong side of the road.
Although accidental, it was an egregious death that could have been avoided had Sacoolas not violated the law. There are judicial powers in place to help prevent such incidents from recurring — powers that Sacoolas would have faced. But before Dunn was buried, Sacoolas and her family fled Britain to Virginia, claiming diplomatic immunity.
It is right that foreign government agents and their families are given diplomatic immunity to cover for petty grievances and squabbles — niche parking fines and congestion charges are a common example — but this protection should not be used to cover manslaughter.
Sacoolas’s decision to escape rather than face the justice of British courts — which are fair and, if anything, astonishingly lenient in levying punishment — smacks of cowardice. At the time, many commentators and Westminster workers were convinced that her immunity would be overturned and that pressure from Britain would induce her return to answer for Dunn’s killing. After all, we are blessed to share what many gushingly refer to as a “special relationship.”
Now it is clear to all that this relationship is “special” insofar as it involves only one side committing to its part of the bargain.
Since her escape to Virginia, London’s pursuit of Sacoolas has been met with rejection at every turn. The diplomatic timeline makes for sobering reading. Before the story made headlines, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab telephoned his counterpart Mike Pompeo to express his disappointment at the decision to recover Sacoolas. He also spoke with Washington’s ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, to deliver the same message. But the embassy held firm and politely batted away this troublesome politicking.
In October, a photograph of President Donald Trump’s briefing notes indicated that the American position was for Sacoolas not to return to the U.K., despite Raab’s efforts and a plea from the prime minister to the White House.
Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles — an articulate, brave woman who has fought relentlessly for justice for her son — said at the time that Washington’s position was “beyond any realm of human thinking,” adding, “I don’t see the point in Boris Johnson talking to President Trump, or President Trump even taking a call from Boris Johnson if he’d already made his decision that if it were to be asked and if it were to be raised, the answer was already going to be no.”
Symptomatic of Britain’s drastic decline on the world stage, we can’t even lobby our best mates to return an acknowledged law-breaker in what would likely be a swift court case.
Charlotte Charles is capable of immense standards of mercy and good grace. Barely a month after burying her son, she flew to the U.S. to pursue the justice that Harry deserves. She told a press conference that she was hoping Sacoolas would receive a suspended sentence “so that we don’t take her away from her children although she’s robbed us of one of ours.”
That grace was not answered in Washington. The spokesperson for Harry’s family alleged that, at a meeting in the White House on October 15, Trump attempted to bargain with the family. According to the spokesperson, the meeting closed with Trump saying that Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin was “standing by ready to write a cheque.”
Having failed to pay off the family, in January the State Department formally rejected an extradition request from London on the basis of her immunity.
There is one word for this behavior by America’s leadership: contempt. Contempt for British people, our lives, our laws and customs, our readiness to stand with America — often at our own disadvantage — on the world stage; all of this has been swiftly disregarded to protect a woman who stands accused of unlawful killing. This merciless decision, by preventing a trial, condemns a boy’s grieving family to not knowing what last words he may have said during the 43 minutes he lay waiting for an ambulance.
The Dunn family has maintained its relentless pursuit of justice to little avail, but the case has not disappeared. The latest development comes from Interpol, which has issued a red notice for Sacoolas. If she leaves her native U.S., she will be considered a fugitive from justice.
Sadly, this likely changes nothing. The State Department has reiterated that its position on extradition is final. In this instance, the special relationship feels abusive.