Campus / National / News / April 23, 2008

Profile: John Ashcroft

Last night, the former Missouri Governor, Missouri Senator, and Attorney General of the United States of America John David Ashcroft spoke in Harbach Theatre of Knox College. He was met with all forms of protest; silent, written, spoken, and artistically depicted. There was turmoil in the audience between people outraged either by Ashcroft or by the students opposing him, and several questions directed at Ashcroft were either left unanswered or dismissed because they were not “factual.”

Before diving into the civil issues of America, John Ashcroft aligned himself as conservative. He is the son of a minister who moved his family from his hometown of Chicago to Springfield, Missouri in order to be closer to the Assembly of God. Young Ashcroft attended public school in southern Missouri before studying law at Yale. After graduating from Yale in 1964, he continued at University of Chicago School of Law. There he received a J.D. in 1967, and followed this by teaching business law at Southwestern Missouri State University.

He became an auditor in 1972. He was initially appointed, not elected, by incumbent Missouri governor Christopher Bond after he lost his first campaign for a Congressional seat. Running for reelection in 1974, he was defeated by George Lehr, who contended that only an accountant had a place as auditor. In light of this defeat, Attorney General Jack Danforth hired him on as his assistant. Then, via election, he became Attorney General in 1976, and was reelected in 1980.

Four years later, Ashcroft was elected governor of Missouri, and he held this position for two terms. After being governor for eight years, he ran for Senate and was elected in 1994, again directly taking the position of a retiring Jack Danforth. During Ashcroft’s 2000 race against Mel Carnahan, Carnahan was killed in a plane crash, just two weeks before the primary. Ashcroft stopped campaigning out of respect, but remained in the race. Jean Carnahan, Mel’s widow, was appointed to take her husband’s place. Ashcroft was still defeated in the only posthumous win for the Senate in U.S. history.

Following this defeat, Ashcroft was steered in another political direction via Republican nomination. President George W. Bush wanted John Ashcroft as the Attorney General of the United States. The Senate voted 58-42 to approve him, though many Democrats were adamantly opposed. He later resigned from his position in November of 2004, and the resignation was actualized in February 2005.

Many students at the speech scoffed at Ashcroft’s robust condemnation of racial profiling, as though Ashcroft had already proven himself to be racist. Though the background here is rather muddy, accusations have been made for years. As governor of Missouri, Ashcroft opposed the appointment of African American judge Ronnie White, praised Southern heroes from the Civil War, and opposed a voter registration campaign in St. Louis which would have marginally helped black Democrats. What is perhaps most unsettling for his opponents is Ashcroft’s opposition of desegregation bussing from the lower income, largely black inner cities to the economically stable, predominantly white suburbs. However, Ashcroft claims that this decision was not racially but economically based, as it placed an unfair tax burden on the Missourians of the suburbs.

What adds another piece to this puzzle is that as governor, John Ashcroft convened the first, and only to date, hearing on racial profiling, in which he supported legislation which removed racial statistics from police force action. He also contended that he opposed the Missouri group Council of Conservative Citizens because they were racist, although there is a stickiness to this as well – the cited information on wikipedia.org states that Ashcroft knew of the CCC’s racist tendencies before an instance in which he supported them in 2000, while BBC has an article in which Ashcroft claims he didn’t know about their racial biases until after his backing.

Ashcroft has been an aggressor in the War on Drugs. The infamous arrest of actor Tommy Chong – a seller of bongs who received nine months in jail, a $103,000 fine, and a year of probation – sparked a lot of controversy among Americans. Since Chong was the only individual out of 55 arrests to receive such harsh punishment, Ashcroft’s opponents claimed that Chong was being used as “an example.”

Following up on sub-culture, Ashcroft is known to be very against pornography. He is met with much derision regarding the curtains which covered the quasi-nakedness of the Spirit of Justice and the Majesty of Law statues in the Great Hall of the Justice Department from 2002 until Gonzales took over. However, there is no actual proof that John Ashcroft ordered the hanging of the $8,000 modesty drapes – ABC initially made the claim, Justice Dept. Spokesperson denied it. Many assume that his adamant conservatism and opposition to pornography prompted him to cover the statues.

Another point of contention with the challengers in his constituencies is civil liberties. John Ashcroft has always been against abortion, he denied the Justice Department’s gay employees the right to their annual Gay Pride Month celebration in the summer of 2003, and he is known for being heavily involved with the security changes made since September 11. Specifically, the TIPS Operation of 2002 (Terrorism Information and Prevention System.) Spear-headed by Ashcroft and George W. Bush, it allowed certain working citizens with access to homes, such as cable installers or telephone repairmen, to report private information if they felt they encountered anything suspicious in their workplace. The United States Postal Service outright refused, and the TIPS Operation fell apart. The drafted and leaked Domestic Security Enactment of 2003 (an enactment which would have further enabled government power to push past laws protecting citizens’ privacy and also override judicial review – one of the crucial checks and balances of the American government, comparable to the President’s veto), and, of course, the Patriot Act of 2001, in light of 9/11. The government’s new privileges to roving wire-tap, provide access to voicemail through a warrant instead of a title III wiretap order, and to telephone, email, and financial records without a court order angered many Americans.

What is perhaps the most emotive and impacting accusation against John Ashcroft is the assertion that he is a war criminal. The protestors at his speech yesterday evening were met with opposition from the crowd – one woman yelled, “No one’s dying.” This was after Ashcroft implied that students protesting by placing bags over their heads were being ignorant and “could not see.” In reply to questions about the legality of using waterboarding as a means of interrogation, he said that he didn’t know whether it was happening or not; to which a student replied, “You’re lying.”

These accusations come from the contentious CIA activities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. According to BBC, the CIA has six secret torture techniques, and waterboarding has been continuously challenged, though never consistently explained or verified by U.S. government officials. John Ashcroft has not only defended but been an advocate for terrorist “prevention” over “prosecution,” as the Knox community repeatedly heard yesterday. He received a surge of flak for his speech at the University of Colorado in November of 2007, where in response to the question “would you be willing to be waterboarded,” Ashcroft replied, “The things that I can survive, if it were necessary to do them to me, I would do.” This remark, his opponents say, encourages waterboarding, and the subject sparked a wave of outrage and accusations that Ashcroft was lowering the standards for human rights. Many worry that this condones torture, if, as ThinkProgress.org says, “Ashcroft apparently believes that torture should be allowed as long as it doesn’t kill him.”

When Knox junior Kat Henak questioned Ashcroft last night, he called her out on the discrepancy between the two forms of waterboarding she mentioned. Ashcroft said covering the face with cloth and pouring water over the mouth is far less dramatic than the Japanese tactic Henak read about from the Statute she carried, which described waterboarding as covering the nose and mouth with cloth and then forcing water into the lungs and stomach.

This passage from the American Anti-torture Act of 2007 says:

It [waterboarding] involves restraining a detainee — usually by strapping him or her to a board — with the head placed lower than the feet. The face or mouth is often covered or stuffed with rags and water is poured over the face to force inhalation. The victim’s lungs fill with water until the procedure is stopped or the victim dies.

Though Ashcroft never explicitly defined waterboarding during or after his speech, the Act implies the procedure simulates drowning.

Ashcroft has also been questioned in regard to a pattern of “making light” of torture. Knox heard his joke, “Going to a high school dance would be torture for me,” twice last night. This exact joke and its several variations have been called into question of taste and empathetic consideration before – in fact, regarding his speech from the previous day. Ashcroft spoke at St. John’s University on Tuesday, and said, “Going to a high school dance, having to listen to loud music, to me that’s torture. I was on the Daily Show once. I was interviewed by Jon Stewart. That was torture.” Left-word blog reported this statement on the very day that he spoke at Knox College, nine hours before his speech here.

Olivia Engel


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