Chancellor Ralph Cicerone did not rescind his invitation to John Choon Yoo to speak at UC Irvine as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series despite an online petition signed by over 450 people. Instead, on Feb. 7, Yoo delivered his CDFS lecture and also agreed to participate in a panel discussion with several UCI professors, giving some people two opportunities to hear him speak while giving others two opportunities to protest.
Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley and former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, helped write parts of the Patriot Act, which has been praised by some as a defense against terrorism yet condemned by others as a violation of civil liberties.
However, what made Yoo the subject of controversy, and what most of the protesters present were there to confront him about, was a memo he wrote to government officials in 2002 that narrowly defined methods of torture to allow techniques which some believe led to abuses of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
In the memo, Yoo argued that the policies made at the Geneva Convention and the War Crimes Act apply only to nation-states and therefore do not apply in the case of members of al-Qaida. His memo is said to be the basis for President George W. Bush’s decision in 2002 to deny the status of prisoner of war to captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
In the afternoon debate, Yoo’s opponents were Mark Levine, assistant professor of history, Cecelia Lynch, associate professor of political science, and Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Levine argued against Yoo’s claims and justification for his memos by stating that the war in Iraq is a ‘new war’ and against Yoo’s definition of ‘humane’ in regard to the treatment of prisoners of war.
‘In other words, you can beat the living you-know-what out of someone … as long as you clothe them afterwards, provide them with medical care and give them some kind of food and shelter,’ Levine said.
The main point of Yoo’s opponents was that the policies of the Bush administration are not in the best interest of the American people.
‘This is the picture we have to deal with if we choose to help the American people understand what our government has gotten us into because it is not pretty,’ Levine said. ‘It is going to get worse, and I have to agree with Professor Yoo that the war on terror is not going to end any time soon, and I know from having spoken with the soldiers on the ground in Iraq. They’re not happy with the kind of policies that put them in more danger than there already is.’
Yoo’s opponents in the debate were not the only ones who disagreed with him. Throughout the event, Yoo was interrupted by audience members who criticized him before leaving in protest. Outside of Monarch Bay, there were about 10 students who voiced their own opinions of Yoo. Some shouted chants, including ‘Hitler rose, Hitler fell, John Yoo can go to hell!’
With the help of Dean of Students Sally Peterson and three UCI Polife Department officers, the small group dispersed.
But later that evening, Yoo encountered a group of about 40 protesters outside his CDSF lecture at the University Club. Nine UCIPD officers were present to prevent the situation from escalating. UCIPD Chief of Police Al Brown was also present at the event after he found out that protesters might interfere with the lecture.
‘I had heard through private contacts and sources that there were going to be staged protests,’ Brown said. ‘There were no arrests made and we were able to get [Yoo] in and out of the building safely.’
In his evening lecture entitled ‘Fighting the New Terrorism: The Role of Law,’ Yoo said that the Geneva Convention does not apply to al-Qaida members held in U.S. custody.
‘A lot of the things that we come to assume, such as accepted rules, we find do not apply because of unprecedented challenges posed by al-Qaida,’ Yoo said.
Yoo argued that the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 constitute a war rather than a crime and therefore al-Qaida members should be tried under the military court.
‘The military system is different from the criminal justice system. Military rules apply for war acts. We consider war, except for the Civil War, to be generated when a foreign entity tries to impose its will and try to change the policies of the United States,’ Yoo said. ‘The acts were organized and planned abroad, not by a nation-state, but by a foreign entity. The source of the 9-11 attacks was from abroad and therefore should be considered as war acts.’
Yoo also said that it is important to consider the purpose of the Sept. 11 attacks to help classify whether they were an act of crime or war.
‘Crime is usually considered to be activity interested in commercial gain,’ Yoo said. ‘I think that the Sept. 11 attacks were not a product to make profit. Al-Qaida may raise funds for its activities, but the primary objective of the attacks was to change the policies of the United States in the Middle East.’
Yoo also said the level of violence is also a factor in determining whether the acts of al-Qaida were of war or crime.
‘Crime is generally sporadic and decentralized. It is usually not directed by a single entity,’ Yoo said. ‘It usually causes death and property destruction, but it does not do so at the level of 3,000 people all at once, billions of dollars of property damage and the shutting down of our stock and financial markets. The attacks of Sept. 11 were [done] to decapitate the financial and military leadership of the United States.’
Some audience members interrupted Yoo during the lecture by shouting and claiming him to be responsible for crimes against humanity. These protesters were immediately escorted outside the University Club by UCIPD. Despite the petition, protests and vocal audience members, there were some students who were pleased with Yoo’s talk.
‘I was most impressed by how he stayed calm and collected through the protesters. He was very professional,’ said Ivan Chen, a second-year criminology, law and society and physics double major
Francis Barraza, a third-year political science major, enjoyed Yoo’s lecture.
‘I really liked how he brought the idea that we are engaged in war,’ Barraza said. ‘Al-Qaida is not a nation-state and doesn’t follow the rules. Therefore they are treated differently.’
Kishan Barot, a second-year history major, stood outside the University Club the entire evening and explained why he decided to protest.
‘As many of the protesters made clear, there is no debating torture; that is, it is not morally acceptable to debate what is ‘good’ torture and what is ‘bad’ torture,’ Barot said. ‘Students, faculty and community members were protesting the hijacking of UC Irvine as a means to raise support for the racist and brutally repressive practices currently being implemented by the United States.’
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