Not long into his speech on national security, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was met with an unexpected interruption. As Ashcroft spoke about the impact of September 11, 2001 on the American government, some 50 people suddenly rose from their seats with their backs towards him and black hoods over their heads. Several held pieces of paper with the word “roundup” written on them.
Surveying the sudden development, Ashcroft said with a chuckle, “I didn’t know you had a seminary here.”
The beginning of John Ashcroft’s day at Cornell was hardly an indicator of the strong tension that would be prevalent during his main speech last night in Statler Auditorium.
Ashcroft made his first appearance in front of the Cornell community in the lounge of Alice Cook House where a small reception was held for the former attorney general, hosted by Prof. Ross Brann, M.R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic studies.
During the reception Ashcroft shook hands with students and addressed any questions they had for him.
One member of the audience asked Ashcroft if he regretted anything in his career.
“I haven’t really considered that because I am a person focused on freedom. Freedom doesn’t exist in the past; there’s only freedom in the future,” Ashcroft responded. “So I have no regrets, and I have done some crazy things,” he said, eliciting appreciative laughter from the small audience.
Toward the end of the interview, as Ashcroft answered a question about China’s involvement in the U.S. stock market — an involvement he took little issue with — a student in the adjoining dining hall in Alice Cook taped a piece of paper to a window the lounge and the dining hall shared asking Ashcroft why waterboarding was not considered torture. At that time, Ashcroft merely stared at the piece of paper without comment and continued addressing the question of China.
In an interview with the Sun conducted just prior to his speech at Statler Hall, Ashcroft did address the question when it was again posed to him.
“The question of whether or not waterboarding is torture is defined by statute. It’s not something I can make a decision on,” Ashcroft answered. “There are laws about what is torture and what isn’t.”
Ashcroft spoke similarly of law when he stood on the stage in Statler Auditorium and justified the Patriot Act to the audience. Ashcroft explained that many of the more controversial aspects of the Patriot Act were applied two decades earlier in the prosecution of drug dealers and that the measures taken were necessary.
“We have a tremendous responsibility to protect. And by protect I mean prevent,” Ashcroft said.
“In the past, prosecution was the method of prevention, but that isn’t the case anymore,” he explained. “Now, anticipation is prevention.”
At that point another audience member, separate from the group who had already stood up and covered their faces with hoods, began loudly questioning Ashcroft on torture. His questions elicited hisses and insults from the audience. Eventually, two Cornell policemen came and urged the man to be silent. In response, the man silently stood and pulled a hood over his head.
Undeterred by the growing number of distractions, Ashcroft praised the wisdom of the Senate in its 2001 decision to pass the Patriot Act and its continued wisdom in renewing the act in 2005.
“They know how valuable it is” he said. “They understand the law.”
Ashcroft also addressed what he saw as unnecessary efforts to balance freedom and security.
“Nothing can be balanced against liberty,” Ashcroft said. “There is no value that can compare to liberty.”
“Security is not a value, it’s a means,” he continued, “and all laws must enhance liberty.”
“We should ask if any new law makes our freedom more or less valuable…if less, then the law shouldn’t be passed.”
For most of the speech, the hooded protestors hoods had stood silent and unmoving, standing as the rest of the audience listened to Ashcroft. They remained so until an abrupt whistle from an audience member, at the sound of which they filed out of the auditorium in silence.
As he watched the protestors leave, Ashcroft sighed softly and said, “Good.” After a pause, he continued on.
“What makes us better [than the rest of the world] is freedom” he said. “The challenge is to defend this community of freedom … and enrich our own freedom.”