Knox College is a liberal arts college, in every sense of the word "liberal." Out of approximately 1400 students, the Knox College Republicans can claim only six members. Although we're a tiny college, we attract very prestigious Democrats to come speak: Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Clinton were our last three commencement speakers. (This year Madeleine Albright will be commencement speaker.) Not to be outdone, this year the College Republicans managed to raise $15,000 to entice Ashcroft to come speak.
The past week has been a tense one on campus. Many people planned to protest the speech. Almost every poster advertising Ashcroft's visit was defaced. Immature and vulgar anti-Ashcroft pamphlets were scattered around campus, encouraging students to disrupt the speech and featuring a picture of Uncle Sam and the slogan "YOU FUCK WITH MY FREEDOM, I FUCK WITH YOU." The Dean of Students sent out an email warning students not to disrupt the speech, but assuring us that there would be a question and answer session afterwards for students to pose tough questions to Ashcroft if they wished.
As I walked toward the Center for the Fine Arts, where the speech was being held, I could see that the Dems and Amnesty had been busy: the sidewalk leading up to CFA was covered with anti-Ashcroft slogans written in chalk ("Ashcroft is a Torturer!" "The 'Patriot' Act is no such thing!" "Abu Ghraib: Brought to you by John Ashcroft" etc.), and someone had hung a large banner over the door proclaiming "Domestic Terrorist." Another banner was hung on the side of Old Main, the historic center of campus and the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates a hundred and fifty odd years ago. When Lincoln spoke there, the students hung up a banner reading "Knox College for Lincoln." Tonight, a new banner read "Fascists for Ashcroft." The inside of CFA was plastered with anti-Ashcroft and anti-Bush posters, but I didn't stop to read them.
The theater was packed--I got there five minutes early, and not only was every seat taken, but the aisles too were practically packed. Outside the door into the theater, one student was lying motionless on a plank made to resemble a waterboard with her hands cuffed and a black hood over her face. As I took a seat in an aisle, I spotted another student standing just below the video cameras, wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and a black hood. (He stood there, motionless, through the entire speech and the questions afterward.) Several students were holding a sign reading "Hey John, how's it feel to lose to a dead guy?" The speech was open to the public, so about forty townies were there, too, scattered among the students. (Galesburg is a very conservative town in some ways, with a very high church-to-population ratio, but generally votes Democratic due to a very, very bad economy.) Several students--myself included--had come with prepared questions. The mood in the crowd was one of eager anticipation.
The president of the Knox Republicans introduced Ashcroft, detailing his political career and describing him as a man who "the president himself" considers "a man of great integrity" (scattered laughter from the crowd), "who works hard to protect our freedoms and liberties" (louder laughter), "and who has tirelessly upheld our Constitution" (uproarious laughter). Nonetheless, the students all gave Ashcroft a polite round of applause as he entered, as well as a steady flashing of cameras at the stage. (A girl next to me snapped to a friend, "Take a picture, gees, it's John FUCKING Ashcroft!")
I must give the man credit for this much: he has a sense of humor. He began his speech by saying he was impressed that we chose to listen to him rather than watching the Pennsylvania primary coverage, which got him a good laugh from the audience. He then thanked the student who introduced him for not mentioning his various political losses. "I may be the only guy ever to lose a re-election bid to the Senate to a deceased opponent," he joked, prompting another round of hearty laughter. As he began his opening jokes, a row of student protesters down front lifted their hands, which had been dyed red. Ashcroft ignored them for a while, then finally asked, irritably, "Is somebody holding a gun on these students or something? What's that stuff on your hands, is that supposed to mean something?"
"Blood," one student responded.
"Blood, huh?" said Ashcroft. "Seems these young folks think they have blood on their hands, and want to show it off to everyone. Come on, take a good look at them!" The students continued to hold up their hands, so Ashcroft went on with his speech.
His speaking voice is loud and gruff, and he spoke without notecards. He also spoke seemingly without a plan--he rambled on about various topics, got sidetracked often, and repeated himself. Most of the speech was, predictably, a justification of the Patriot Act and the Bush Administration, and wiretapping in particular. (He used the word "surveil" eight times by my count, and prompted a rousing round of laughter for explaining that "in the eighties, roving wiretaps were used to catch drug dealers..." and then, in an undertone, "...and other people.") About halfway through his speech, the red-handed protesters stood up in unison and put black hoods over their heads. "Sit down!" barked an old man from town. "We can't see!"
"Neither can they!" replied Ashcroft. "They've got bags on their heads!"
He continued: "But while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few things about these kids. They don't want to see. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see. They don't want to see."
"They can still hear!" someone retorted from the back of the audience before being shushed. Ashcroft ignored the outburst and went on talking about how 9/11 necessitated a change in the role of the Attorney General from a prosecutor of crimes to a preventer of crimes.
Afterwards, two microphones were set up so that students could ask questions. The questions covered a variety of subjects, including the Bush Administration's denial of funding to gay rights groups (asked by a male student wearing a dress and a sunhat whom Ashcroft seemed unsure of how to respond to before finally saying, "Um, I don't know why I would concern...concern myself with that."), Ashcroft's position on immigration ("I am in favor of legal immigration, it made this country great."), Ashcroft's position on religion ("I would hope that if somebody accused me of being a Christian, there would be enough evidence to convict me. But nobody has the right to force their religious opinions on other people or to disrespect other people's faith." It was the only reasonable thing he said all night, and earned him a big round of applause.), and, of course, some idiot wasted a question to ask, "Do you have a soul? How do you sleep at night?" (to which Ashcroft angrily responded that only God can judge that, and the questioner was roundly booed by the entire audience).
But the most common questions, as expected, related to his position on "enhanced interrogation techniques," a subject which he completely avoided in his speech and a subject which provoked him into flashes of anger and irritation whenever a student brought it up. One student, Tom, asked about the ABC news story from a few weeks ago, detailing how Ashcroft had discussed specific methods of torture with Rice, Powell, Tenet, and Rumsfeld in the White House:
TOM: This story was made public by ABC a few weeks ago. It claims that you, Rice, Tenet and others met in the White House to discuss different methods of "enhanced interrogation," is that correct?
ASHCROFT: (angrily) Correct? Is what correct? Is it correct that this story ran on ABC? I don't know that. I don't know anything about it! Is it a real story? When was this story, huh? Huh?
TOM: Um, early April, April 9th, I think...
ASHCROFT: (interrupting) You think? You think? You don't even know! Next question!
TOM: The article says that you discussed "whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning"...
ASHCROFT: I said, next question!
Another student asked if Ashcroft's position on torture violated the Geneva Conventions or other international laws:
ASHCROFT: No. No it doesn't violate the Geneva Conventions. As for other laws, well, the U.S. is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture. And that convention, well, when we join a treaty like that we send it to the Senate to be ratified, and when the Senate ratifies they often add qualifiers, reservations, to the treaty which affect what exactly we follow. Now, I don't have a copy of the convention in front of me...
ME: (holding up my copy) I do! (boisterous applause and whistling from the audience) Would you like to borrow it?
ASHCROFT: (after a pause) Uh, you keep a hold of it. Now, as I was saying, I don't have it with me but I'm pretty sure it defines torture as something that leaves lasting scars or physical damage...
A STUDENT FROM THE AUDIENCE: Liar! You liar! (the student is shushed by the audience)
ASHCROFT: So no, waterboarding does not violate international law.
Finally, I got to ask my question about waterboarding--and the result was, of course, the reason for this diary's title:
(Note: Yes, that is actually me in the photo.)
ME: First off, Mr. Ashcroft, I'd like to apologize for the rudeness of some of my fellow students. It was uncalled for--we can disagree civilly, we don't need that. (round of applause from the audience, and Ashcroft smiles) I have here in my hand two documents. One of them, you know, is the text of the United Nations Convention against Torture, which, point of interest, says nothing about "lasting physical damage"...
ASHCROFT: (interrupting) Do you have the Senate reservations to it?
ME: No, I don't. Do you happen to know what they are?
ASHCROFT: (angrily) I don't have them memorized, no. I don't have time to go around memorizing random legal facts. I just don't want these people in the audience to go away saying, "He was wrong, she had the proof right in her hand!" Because that's not true. It's a lie. If you don't have the reservations, you don't have anything. Now, if you want to bring them another time, we can talk, but...
ME: Actually, Mr. Ashcroft, my question was about this other document. (laughter and applause) This other document is a section from the judgment of the Tokyo War Tribunal. After WWII, the Tokyo Tribunal was basically the Nuremberg Trials for Japan. Many Japanese leaders were put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture. And among the tortures listed was the "water treatment," which we nowadays call waterboarding...
ASHCROFT: (interrupting) This is a speech, not a question. I don't mind, but it's not a question.
ME: It will be, sir, just give me a moment. The judgment describes this water treatment, and I quote, "the victim was bound or otherwise secured in a prone position; and water was forced through his mouth and nostrils into his lungs and stomach." One man, Yukio Asano, was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor by the allies for waterboarding American troops to obtain information. Since Yukio Asano was trying to get information to help defend his country--exactly what you, Mr. Ashcroft, say is acceptible for Americans to do--do you believe that his sentence was unjust? (boisterous applause and shouts of "Good question!")
ASHCROFT: (angrily) Now, listen here. You're comparing apples and oranges, apples and oranges. We don't do anything like what you described.
ME: I'm sorry, I was under the impression that we still use the method of putting a cloth over someone's face and pouring water down their throat...
ASHCROFT: (interrupting, red-faced, shouting) Pouring! Pouring! Did you hear what she said? "Putting a cloth over someone's face and pouring water on them." That's not what you said before! Read that again, what you said before!
ME: Sir, other reports of the time say...
ASHCROFT: (shouting) Read what you said before! (cries of "Answer her fucking question!" from the audience) Read it!
ME: (firmly) Mr. Ashcroft, please answer the question.
ASHCROFT: (shouting) Read it back!
ME: "The victim was bound or otherwise secured in a prone position; and water was forced through his mouth and nostrils into his lungs and stomach."
ASHCROFT: (shouting) You hear that? You hear it? "Forced!" If you can't tell the difference between forcing and pouring...does this college have an anatomy class? If you can't tell the difference between forcing and pouring...
ME: (firmly and loudly) Mr. Ashcroft, do you believe that Yukio Asano's sentence was unjust? Answer the question. (pause)
ASHCROFT: (more restrained) It's not a fair question; there's no comparison. Next question! (loud chorus of boos from the audience)
At the end of the question and answer session, Ashcroft left the stage to a smattering of applause from the students and a standing ovation from the townies. As soon as he left, I got mobbed by students (and even a professor) trying to shake my hand and thank me for my question. The reporter from the student newspaper who was covering the event asked for my name and class so he could quote me in the article. When I walked out of the theater, I got another round of applause and congratulations. (I have to admit, I am enjoying being a campus hero.)
My final verdict on Ashcroft: this is what Hannah Arendt meant by "the banality of evil." He seems like a normal guy (albeit one with some real anger issues), and yet...well, I don't need to finish that sentence. Nonetheless, I'm very, very glad I went, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
(I just found this on Youtube--it's short, but it has a clip of me asking my question, although not his answer to me. It does give clips of his answers to the other questions about waterboarding, though.)
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