John Ashcroft gave a speech at Knox College the other day. Then came the student question and answer period. It is instructive to see how the students there dealt with him:
Chalking Stairs! This looks just like Rabb.
As to the questions, I’ll quote a few –
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!
John Ashcroft pretends he can’t understand a simple question. I wonder why…
Question – Does Waterboarding violate the Geneva conventions?
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.
A note – Ashcroft is, of course, wrong.
Also note how “Student from the Audience” might evoke our sympathy, but, in this case, his (or her) outburst was perceived negatively by the audience. Everyone there (well, all the college students) already knows that Ashcroft is a liar.
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)
So basically –
“Me”: “We gave huge sentences to the Japanese for doing waterboarding. Yet the Japanese were trying to use it to save their countrymen, same as us. Is that just?”
Ashcroft: “I am angry and refuse to answer you!”
So what can we learn from this?
– Prior to Ashcroft coming to campus, there was a lot of flyering, chalking, and chatter on campus, alerting people to his presence, reminding them that he was responsible for violating the Geneva conventions, etc. This made sure that his visit would be a major and anticipated event.
– Be Very Prepared:Tom was prepared. Yet, in the confusion, Ashcroft could dodge the question. The author of the article (“me”), on the other hand, was freakishly prepared. She brought documents. She memorized documents, she had her question prepared in advance, and then she pwned Ashcroft.
– Be Courteous but Firm. Notice how the author went out of her way to be civil, but at the same time stuck to her central point – “Mr. Ashcroft, would you please answer the question?”
What else can we learn from this episode?