Uncivil discourse: Protesters disrupt Yoo at Miller Center
The Miller Center of Public Affairs has a long tradition of luring influential people to speak to engaged citizens, but this genteel practice degenerated on Friday, March 19, at an appearance by the lawyer who wrote the infamous "torture memos" that the Bush Administration used to justify waterboarding terrorist suspects.
While irate audience members shouted at the interrupters, the Center's programs director, George Gilliam, scolded disruptive protesters during the talk by University of California at Berkeley law professor John Yoo.
"I would like to thank George again for duplicating a Berkeley atmosphere," joshed Yoo, as the tension mounted.
Yoo has just written a book called Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush. His theory is that those considered the best presidents are "people who have interpreted their Constitutional powers very broadly, while the worst presidents interpreted them very narrowly."
His worst-prez picks include James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and the local Father of the Constitution, James Madison. ("He allowed Congress to lead us into the War of 1812, perhaps the worst strategic blunder we ever made," explains Yoo.)
"War criminal," shouted a protester, who seemed less interested in Yoo's assessment of American presidents than by the torture memos.
Another demonstrator held up a "wanted" poster bearing Yoo's image, a stunt that so outraged one white-haired man that he slapped at the paper and ordered the holder to put it down.
The mayhem began even as Yoo began heading toward the podium, when a protester exhorted the audience gathered in the auditorium off Old Ivy Road to leave before they were "morally compromised."
"This is a time of great sadness for me," mourned Gilliam, who found himself repeatedly warning the disruptors that they would be removed if they continued.
"In seven years," said Gilliam, "we've had controversial speakers here before. We pride ourselves on offering simple, civil courtesies to our speakers."
The non-protesting audience applauded.
Gilliam himself was interrupted when he posed the first question to Yoo about his use of power while in the Justice Department.
Protest organizer David Swanson was first in line to ask questions, which Yoo gamely tried to answer, despite Swanson's instructions to answer yes or no. And when asked to sit down, Swanson shouted, "I am not going to sit down in a room with a war criminal," as he was hauled off by police.
As for the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have made Yoo so controversial, he responded that the 9/11 attacks were not a "normal" war.
"First, we were talking about outside the United States," he specified, noting that the Bill of Rights would prohibit waterboarding in this country. He also said that as part of their training 20,000 American soldiers have undergone waterboarding with no lasting physical harm.
"Physical abuse–- we can't engage in physical abuse," he said to reporters after his talk. "That's where I draw the line."
He added, "No matter where we drew the line, people were going to be upset."
Yoo sees presidential power as fluctuating, especially in times of war. President Obama, for example, could not invoke executive powers to implement health care, says Yoo.
"The United States in war time has to do things that are unpleasant," says Yoo, "We drop bombs on cities."
The war on terror, he says, "was thrust on us."
Update: An afternoon protest followed the Miller Center event. See Jay Kuhlmann's photos in the Hook Gallery.