Enduring shouts and insults from the crowd, former Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a speech entitled “Leadership in Challenging Times” in Harbach Theater at Knox College. Outside a sign was hung on the building saying “Domestic Terrorist,” and anti-Ashcroft messages were written in chalk on the sidewalk and stairs leading up to the door. Inside, students hung posters both for and against Ashcroft. One picture, a composite comprised of dozens of small pornographic images, depicted Ashcroft’s face with text across it reading “Gashcroft.” Senior Ellen Vessels dressed like the spirit of justice and stood immobile with hands spread wide and a cloth that read “Patriot Act” over her mouth and eyes.
When Ashcroft was introduced as a man whom President Bush said was of “great integrity, great judgment,” and “who knows the law,” the statement was met with waves of laughter and jeering from the crowd. The statement that he’d spent his career “fighting for justice” and “upholding constitutional rights” brought both laughter and cheers.
From the manner in which he began his speech, it appeared Ashcroft recognized a hostile element in the crowd. One student stood in the middle of the room with his back turned, wearing a black hood and an orange shirt that bore the message “Got Busted Penitentiary” on its back. He remained in that position during the entire speech. Ashcroft tried to defuse the tension created by the earlier laughter, joking that the introduction forgot to mention that he had lost three political races and was “the only man in the universe to have lost to a deceased opponent.”
With that opening Ashcroft launched into a speech that focused on addressing liberty as the core value of America.
“The core value of the United States system is liberty. The responsibility of American leadership is the responsibility to defend this liberty,” he said, referring to decisions made during his term as Attorney General. “The reason to have security is to secure liberty.”
After stating that he was brought up to believe that Americans were superior, he paused, looking into the crowd and asked, “Does someone have a gun pointed at those people holding up their hands?” Fourteen students in orange shirts were holding up hands stained red.
“Some people think they have blood on their hands,” Ashcroft said. “Would everyone please look at the people in the front?” At this point the students put black hoods over their heads and stood up, immobile.
Cries of “Sit down!” and “We can’t see!” were shouted from all sides, to which Ashcroft replied “Neither can they. The difference between you and them is that they don’t want to see. None are so blind as those who refuse to see.” His response was met with applause.
“It’s odd to find such close-mindedness in an institution of education,” he remarked.
Ashcroft continued his speech, commenting on the “robust lethality” of weapons in today’s world as compared to the lesser destructive capabilities of the past to stress the importance for increases in security.
“After 9/11 I walked into a room with the President, and he looked right at me and said ‘Don’t ever let this happen again.’ That statement had a profound impact on how the Justice Department went about its business. Prevention became our goal, not prosecution.”
The former Attorney General also addressed the concerns about roving wire taps in the Patriot Act, explaining that the authorities within the document had already been in existence within our laws and that they were simply gathered and applied to fighting terrorism. The roving wiretaps, he said, “includes drug dealers and some other people,” to which students laughed. “I don’t know what I said there,” said Ashcroft.
“I reject the idea of balancing liberty and security,” Ashcroft said. “Security is not a core value. People ought to reject any law that doesn’t make our liberty meaningful.” At this point the hooded students, still standing, staged a die-in in the aisles. “Fire hazard, guys,” was shouted out and several audience members near the aisle were displeased with the students’ choice of location.
“If there’s an emergency you’re blocking our way,” said one particularly irate woman.
After closing his speech, Ashcroft opened the floor for questions. Freshman Ben Keathley, president of The Knox Republicans, asked that they be questions only, no statements, and no rebuttals.
Students asked about a wide range of topics, including the amount of money spent researching 9/11, immigration and border control, torture and waterboarding, revoked funding for LGBT organizations, the civilian death toll in Iraq caused by the U.S., and racially-biased surveillance targeting people of Middle Eastern descent.
Ashcroft avoided answering most of the questions directly, some of which were awkwardly phrased. Many students felt he didn’t answer their questions, and promped him by saying “Would you please answer my question?”
Regarding the issue of torture and waterboarding the dialogue became especially heated. Ashcroft was asked what he’d say to an American soldier who’d been waterboarded, to which he replied that the Congress adds its own reservations to documents like the Geneva Convention that define the terms within the document. In it he said, it approximates torture with anything that leaves “significant long-term physical injury,” and that “waterboarding” is a very general term.
This statement garnered a very hostile response from the crowd. One student shouted back, “It’s a very specific term!” to which Ashcroft replied, “Waterboarding doesn’t always happen in the same way.”
“That’s a lie!” cried another student to the sound of people shushing her. Ashcroft paused and remarked, “Someone has lost the ability to discourse. If you don’t like the law, talk to your Congressman, not me. They’re the ones who make the laws.”
Junior Kat Henak referenced a case of waterboarding used on a prisoner by a Japanese man after World War II. The Japanese man was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and the Attorney General was asked if he thought that was fair.
“You’re referring to a technique used in Japan in the 1940’s. You can’t compare them.”
“Was it unjust?” Henak asked again.
“I can’t say that; you’ve defined water-boarding in two different ways,” said Ashcroft.
The student had read the description from the report of the 1940’s torture and the definition of waterboarding as defined by our government.
“Do you even know what waterboarding is?” came a shout from the back.
Another student referenced the roughly 3,000 military personnel body count the U.S. military has acquired during our time in Iraq and contrasted it with approximately 90,000 civilian Iraqi deaths caused by the U.S., asking if our violent actions were perpetuating the terrorism we’re supposed to be fighting, and if our actions could be interpreted as terrorism.
“I don’t see what they have to do with one another,” said Ashcroft.
When the student replied that 90,000 is a much more significant number than 3,000, the Attorney General gave a quick grin and said, “Yes, 90,000 is a much more significant number than 3,000. Give the man here a medal from the math department. Next question.”
Senior Graham Troyer-Joy dressed in drag and held a sign that say “Marry Me John?” He asked why the Justice Department chose to focus on revoking funding for the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transsexual community instead of focusing on terrorism.
Ashcroft’s response brought forth boos from the audience. “I have no idea what would make me want to focus on something like that,” Ashcroft said.
Towards the end of the session, one student asked, considering the TIPS program and the racially biased focus on people of Middle Eastern descent if had developed, would the Attorney General still support the bill that enacted the program. The Attorney said he was against racial profiling and that TIPS has a right to compel a citizen militia to assist the government in looking for terrorist activities.
Though, after this, the Attorney General ended the question and answer session himself and left the stage after thanking the audience, students were leaving in a steady trickle long before the last question was posed.
When asked what he thought about the students’ protesting, Keathley responded, “I thought it was pointless. I don’t understand what it was all about. He’s no longer the Attorney General, and he was here as a private citizen.”
The Knox Republicans also posted “Hell Yes, You Will Go!” signs which read “If you disrupt the former Attorney General John Ashcroft, you will be escorted out of Harbach Theater.” No one was escorted from the theater. When asked about it, Keathley replied, “Knox Security was supposed to be on that. I don’t think they did a very good job.”
Dean Xavier Romano was of another opinion. He thought the protesters were “thoughtful and engaging.” Laughing about the students lying down he remarked “I thought, oh God, the Fire Marshal has been on our case but then figured, ‘Oh, what the Hell.’”
Considering the tense atmosphere and the manner in which question and answers were put forth, Professor Lane Sunderland admitted that it was, “very hard to ask questions in this context. Something gets lost in the communication or the speaker’s response, and it’s hard to get your idea articulated.” That said, he didn’t entirely approve of the way in which students behaved.
“I would prefer we not be condescending toward any of our speakers, that we have audience courtesy and not summary dismissal. Many of us professors are here because we like to address competing views.”
Though former Attorney General John Ashcroft didn’t answer many of the questions in the way students wanted, he did attempt, for the most part, to keep it civil. He even went so far as to encourage questioning himself.
“It’s a good idea for you to be skeptical,” he said. “It’s a bad idea to be cynical. You won’t get very far in life being cynical.”
“Given the tone of the responses, he tried to contain it and make it a dialogue,” commented Professor Sunderland.
Senior Meredith Kopelman agreed in part with Lane’s analysis. “He was out of line sometimes as a speaker. He got a little angry, and you could see it, but with everyone bashing him, who wouldn’t react that way?” About the protesting, however, she felt that the students could have made their case better. “I feel that kind of protesting takes away from the message they’re trying to send.”
In response to one question, John Ashcroft said, “I don’t know, maybe you can ask me the next time I come. But, I don’t think you’ll want me to come back.”
While his assessment of his popularity with the Knox constituency might have been accurate, he might be wrong that Knox doesn’t want him around. Even when he informed a student that his question would be the last, people were still standing up to join an ever-growing line behind the microphone. The Knox community still has questions.