WASHINGTON -- We say that nobody is above the law in this country, but that is not true.
Foreign diplomats, their spouses, children, staffs, etc., are all above the law here.
Over the years, they have been accused of shoplifting, counterfeiting, weapons violations, assault, heroin smuggling and keeping slaves.
They have been accused of -- and occasionally admit to -- acts of rape.
But they are never punished.
Peter Christiansen, a retired New York police detective, once testified before a Senate committee that he had tracked down a man suspected of 15 rapes.
Two of the victims identified the man, but the man was the son of a military attache from Ghana and had diplomatic immunity.
"I was forced to let him go," Christiansen said. "As he left, he snickered and laughed at the crime victims and myself."
The son of a Brazilian ambassador once got into a fight in a topless bar in Washington, pulled out two guns and fired several shots at one of the bar's employees, hitting him in the hand, leg and abdomen.
The diplomat's son was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
But the charges were dropped because he had diplomatic immunity. And he went home to sip pina coladas in Rio while the wounded American could not even get his medical bills paid.
And not only do people have immunity; objects do also.
Diplomatic "pouches" cannot be searched -- "pouches" have been defined to include such things as 9-ton trucks -- even though U.S. authorities have suspected them of containing heroin and weapons.
None of this upsets people much. Until recently. When the diplomats started messing with what some Americans consider really sacred:
As tourists from throughout the nation have learned, there are very few parking spaces in Washington, D.C., but there are very many people giving out parking tickets.
There are 250,000 curbside spaces in Washington, and there are about 1.25 million people looking for them every day.
Last year, Washington handed out 2.3 million tickets and raised $70 million.
But not from the embassies. The embassies get tickets, but they won't pay tickets.
Which is why foreign countries currently owe the United States about $6 million in parking tickets.
About $3.8 million of that is owed by one country: Russia.
But Russia won't pay, even though Russia will get $2.5 billion in aid from the United States this year.
An amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, introduced by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and enacted Sept. 28, will subtract the overdue parking fines from each debtor's foreign aid package, but why should Russia care? It can just ask for more money next year.
Israel recently paid up all its parking debt, some $62,870. Israel gets about $3 billion in aid from the United States each year.
But the second-largest scofflaw, Nigeria, which owes Washington about $77,830 in parking fines, doesn't want to pay.
"Parking in the district is a real problem, a difficult problem," Mohammed Sani, a spokesman for the Nigerian Embassy, told the Washington Post last month. "The bulk of the tickets are for expired meters. . . . There is just nowhere to park."
Well, I've got a few words for Mr. Sani. And here they are: Bus. Cab. Subway. Bicycle. Feet.
These are all means of getting to work -- used by millions of Americans each day -- that do not require parking.
And here are another couple of words that might help: Parking garages. Of course, you have to pay at parking garages or they won't give you your car back.
The State Department announced last week that it is going to get tough. If diplomats won't pay, we will not give them new diplomatic license plates.
Big deal. The diplomats will just drive without plates.
No, in order really to get tough, our State Department will have to impose real punishment:
It will have to send all the scofflaw diplomats back home, a fate many diplomats consider worse than death.
At home, they have to feed the meters.