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By Charles Lam
Illustration by Bob AulViet Dinh, the Bush-appointed former assistant attorney general and main author of the USA Patriot Act, began his Jan. 11 speech at UC Irvine's Beckman Center Auditorium by admitting, "I am a complete intellectual fraud."
It was supposed to be a joke. But it wasn't funny, because, as his speech would soon reveal, Dinh is, in fact, an intellectual fraud. So his confession of cerebral incompetence turned out to be both factual and devoid of irony—the latter being key to humor. But Dinh's non-funniness didn't inhibit his spectacular success in revealing the complete idiocy behind the thinking that governs our nation's War on Terror.
A Vietnamese-American who fled communism for Fullerton by way of Portland, Oregon, Dinh now teaches law at Georgetown University and was at UC Irvine as part of the university's 2004-2005 Chancellor's Distinguished Fellows Series. Because of his role in writing the Patriot Act, he's even more controversial than upcoming speakers John Yoo, the author of the Pentagon torture memos, and Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's former prime minister and running dog for U.S. imperialism.
Thanks to activists with ACLU of Orange County and UC Irvine Students for Peace who formed a gauntlet in front of the auditorium, everyone in the standing-room-only crowd was holding anti-Patriot Act leaflets. But Dinh didn't mention the Patriot Act until halfway through his speech. Instead, he tortured his audience with a lengthy, rambling history lesson about how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ended the monopoly of nation-states exercising "absolute sovereignty."
"I liken this system of order to a playground with 191 children, no recess and no teacher," Dinh said, referring to the 191 nations and "nation-state actors" such as the Vatican that comprise the world. "We know that bullies exist in the playground, but sooner or later, some of those who are bullied will gang up on the bully and re-establish the balance of power in the playground. What Sept. 11 showed us is that this system is being fundamentally altered by people with the ability to project nation-state-like force, but with none of the sovereignty or responsibility of a nation-state."
Dinh's audience, meanwhile, scratched its collective head, wondering what the lame playground metaphor had to do with the Patriot Act, which is widely viewed as the most serious violation of the U.S. Constitution since hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were herded into concentration camps during World War II. Under the Patriot Act, Homeland Security agents have arrested thousands of Arab residents, many of whom remain in federal detention facilities without access to lawyers.
"Only 19 individuals with $100,000 inflicted the most catastrophic damage that no other state has been willing or able to do for 250 years," Dinh continued. "The terrorist theorist expects either that we as a liberal democracy do not possess the tools or the will to protect our security or that we would be goaded into rejecting liberal democratic traditions for an authoritarian response."
The unintended irony behind that remark—the Patriot Act is an "authoritarian response" that rejects our nation's "liberal democratic traditions"—had many in the audience laughing. That's when Dinh made sure his audience knew terrorism is no laughing matter.
"Each of us is a target of opportunity," he said. Of course, he didn't mean every American; he meant everybody sitting before him. "This is a great target of opportunity," he said, gesturing at his audience. "We have some of the greatest minds at one of the greatest schools."
Having simultaneously revealed himself as a fear monger and an ass-kisser, Dinh then went on to demonstrate that he also possesses an appalling lack of tact. "It is a simple strategy," he said of the Patriot Act, grinning expectantly at the half-Asian crowd. "If you are a terrorist suspect, we will stick to you like white on rice."
Dinh ended his speech by reassuring everyone that, while the war on terror can never be won, the Bush administration is trying to win it anyway. It was hardly a reassuring message.
"Much remains to be done in every area," he said. "We will never be done with the task, but we are doing the best we can."
Dinh then invited questions.
"Aren't you arguing for keeping our nation in a permanent state of undeclared war against a handful of guerrillas who are scattered around the world?" asked one attendee.
Instead of answering, Dinh did a great imitation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Are we in a perpetual war?" he asked himself. "No, we shouldn't be. Are we in a war of uncertain duration? Yes, we are."
When another speaker asked Dinh if he felt complicit in the abuses of power and suspension of due process that the Patriot Act entailed, he sought to shift the blame for those abuses on civil libertarians. "Nothing in your question has anything to do with the Patriot Act," he said, "so you might as well ask Senator Barbara Boxer if she feels complicit. I don't feel responsibility for the confusion over the Patriot Act, but blame the ACLU for sowing it."
Boxer was nowhere in the audience to ask.
As the evening progressed, Dinh increasingly began sounding more like Nguyen Van Thieu, the corrupt South Vietnamese president who supervised his country's losing war with North Vietnam and routinely gave press conferences saying that his government was doing its best. One audience member who identified himself as Vietnamese-American asked Dinh whether he thought the war in Iraq was becoming another Vietnam. "We don't have time to talk about Vietnam," Dinh answered. "We'd be here all night."