Illustration by Bob AulJohn C. Yoo, the Berkeley Law School professor and former Justice Department attorney who co-authored the Bush administration's infamous torture memos, prefaced his Feb. 7 speech at UC Irvine's University Club with a friendly wave at the roughly 200 protesters outside the glass window to his left.
"I know my visit has sparked controversy," Yoo joked. "But at Berkeley, the protesters don't stay behind the glass. They come right up to the podium."
Yoo spoke too soon. He had barely completed his opening quip when a student seated several rows from the back of the audience stood up and interrupted him.
"John C. Yoo, you are directly responsible for the torture and abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib," he shouted, pointing his finger at Yoo. "You should be ashamed!"
Yoo pressed on.
"Okay, the first issue I want to talk about is how the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed the world," he said. He then paused, momentarily distracted as the University Club began vibrating when dozens of protesters outside pounded the glass window.
"The primary objective of the terrorist attacks was to change U.S. policy in the Middle East," he stated. "The 9/11 attacks were a classic decapitation attack to eliminate our political and military leadership. Would it have made a difference if the Soviet Union had carried out the attacks? Is there any doubt we'd be at war with that nation?"
Yoo, a master of rhetoric, wasn't expecting an answer to his question. But he got one anyway when two female students simultaneously bounced out of their seats.
"John Yoo, if you were here years ago, you'd be convincing the Germans it's okay to use concentration camps," they screamed.
"How many of you would be sitting here listening to it?" one of them asked the audience. "How can you listen to fascists? This is murder. John Yoo: go to hell!"
Yoo got a few laughs when he asked that everyone hold their questions until after the speech. Then he continued with his boring lecture, although he was barely audible thanks to the protest-related racket outside.
"Al-Qaeda is not a nation-state," he droned. "The Geneva Convention only applies to nation-states. The al-Qaeda terrorist organization has never signed the Geneva Convention and has made it quite clear it has no intention of obeying the Geneva Convention."
Besides, Yoo pointed out, the Geneva Convention is for pussies.
"Under the Geneva Convention, it is illegal to put somebody in a cell," Yoo said, which is why prisoners of war continue to wear uniforms, remain together with their officers and are housed in barracks.
"A lot of these principles don't apply to al-Qaeda," he continued. "Al-Qaeda living in barracks would kill their own members who cooperate with our government. Do we allow al-Qaeda to cook their own food? Utensils can be made into weapons. The Geneva Convention does not permit anything more than polite questioning. This would prevent many of the interrogations that take place at our own police stations."
Yoo concluded his speech by arguing that the suspension of civil liberties and human-rights abuses currently taking place are really nothing new in the United States. While not referencing nine decades of slavery, Yoo cited both the Alien Sedition Acts of 1798 and unspecified wartime measures enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt—that would be hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans rounded up in internment camps—to make his point.
"If you limit civil liberties during wartime, are they somehow permanently altered?" Yoo asked. "I ask you to honestly compare those periods to today and ask whether any adjustment that occurs today will permanently erode civil liberties."
During an understandably brief question-and-answer period, a series of people competed with the exterior noise of protesters by yelling at Yoo. One audience member called him "a disgrace to western civilization." The only actual question came from someone who inquired how Yoo could say civil liberties would be restored after the war on terror ends when, by definition, the war on terror will never end—as Bush administration officials have repeatedly promised.
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"I'm not saying all the answers are easy," Yoo responded. "But our war is not against all terrorists, just the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Not all terrorists pose a threat to the U.S."
"Then what are we doing in Iraq?" someone yelled.
Instead of answering, Yoo complained about how he is being blamed for every Bush administration policy when really, his only role was to provide a legal justification for torture. But he didn't get very far before being interrupted again, this time by a petite female student who ostentatiously stalked out the room. As she did so, she uttered a two-word verdict on Yoo that economically expressed the moral economy of the crowd: "You suck!"