It happened today - January 3, 2016

Speaking of the Panama Canal, Jan. 3 is the day Manuel Noriega surrendered to the United States in 1990 and was carted off for trial and a lengthy prison sentence as a drug dealer. It’s not good when the head of your country is a pusher.

It’s also not good when a neighbouring country can march in and arrest him. To be sure, Panamanians didn’t like Noriega either. A villainous secret policeman under the previous dictator Omar Torrijos, who died in a plane crash in 1981, he seized power though never the formal presidency and misgoverned Panama, crushed his foes, worked both sides of the street in the Cold War and was as ugly as a donkey’s backside to boot. (His countrymen nicknamed him “Pineapple Face,” not apparently as a mark of affection.)

Eventually his repressive tactics so enraged Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) that the U.S. cut off aid and backed his puppet’s opponent in the 1989 election. When Noriega canceled that election, and U.S. pressure escalated, the Panamanian dictator inexplicably decided it would be a good plan to declare that Panama was at war with the United States.

Soon after, a U.S. Marine was murdered by Panamanian soldiers in an apparently unpremeditated piece of violent idiocy, and George Herbert Walker Bush “sent in the Marines” (actually a combined force including Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and even National Guard) in one of those lopsided operations that made people think history had ended. Twenty-three American troops were killed, as against about 450 Panamanians, with civilian casualties variously estimated and possibly considerably higher.

At that point Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy and was driven out by high-volume rock and roll. It’s bad, in principle, when your popular music sends pushers fleeing to the authorities, though in this case it worked out well.

It’s still a bit odd from the point of view of this “international law” we keep hearing about. Technically the United States doesn’t govern Panama and it’s not against American law to violate Panamanian law in Panama.

Foreign drug dealing may be a threat to Americans’ health or even national security, although arguably it is their penchant for taking drugs that is at the root of the problem. But if so, the action was taken to protect national security not in accordance with some emerging, universally accepted, history-ending set of binding international norms.

Also, Noriega was so appalling that nobody asked a lot of questions when he was finally carted off and locked up where he could rot in obscurity.

History resumed anyway, though.