Monday, December 15, 2008

In Defense of John Yoo

I've been meaning to post this for several days and was distracted by concerts, inattentive drivers, and other things.

The City Council of Berserkeley is trying to run the world again. Last week they passed a resolution urging the United States to prosecute John Yoo for war crimes. (I presume they expect this prosecution to take place in late January. It won't happen before the inauguration.) The extreme wing actually set out to urge U.C. Berkeley to rearrange its class schedule so no student would ever have to take a course from him, but there were enough semi-rational people on the council that they couldn't get it through.

As everyone knows, John Yoo's "war crimes" consisted of writing the legal memos which the Bush administration used to justify its use of torture on terrorism suspects, when he was a deputy assistant attorney general under the first Bush administration.

Any regular reader of this blog also knows (or should) that I am not in favor of torturing terrorism suspects (or anybody else), that I am generally opposed to almost everything the Bush administration has done (even their anti-AIDS campaign, PEPFAR, is marred by their insistence that no one should use condoms, ever), and that I will be delighted and relieved to see the whole boiling of them oozing out the door in January.

But if John Yoo can be prosecuted for his opinions, who's next?

He didn't act on his opinions; other people did. It's arguable that those people committed war crimes. As far as I know, no one claims that John Yoo has ever done anything except write legal memos and teach law, and have opinions with which a great many people disagree.

Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." John Yoo has as much right to state that using torture can be justified in the case of terrorist subjects, or any of the other appalling things he has said, as I have to write this post disagreeing with him. The issue isn't that he wrote the memos. The issue is that the Bush administration acted on his memos. They may even have told him what opinions they'd like to see in the memos.

The Berkeley City Council doesn't understand that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it extends to the most reprehensible opinions you can think of. You have no freedom of speech unless the Nazis, the Communists, and the Ku Klux Klan have freedom of speech. Or unless John Yoo does.

The main restriction on freedom of speech is that one is not allowed to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Is it shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater to opine that torturing terrorists is legal, if you have reason to believe people will act on your opinion?? If there is any parallel there, I think it is overweighted by the importance of maintaining free speech for all opinions, even the wrong ones.

1 comment:

  1. Yessiree, right on.

    Noam Chomsky made exactly the same point in defending a French pol who had insisted that the Holocaust was a fiction.

    It is precisely in those instances in which the most egregious things are said, by the most disgusting persons imaginable, that our freedom of speech is most challenged, and most needs defending.

    The internet is a new medium which has caused everyone to re-confront the issue of free speech. Blogs are proprietary, and as anyone knows, free speech doesn't extend to enforcing total accommodation upon private venues. You can't force a bookseller to sell a dirty book. You can't make a radio station give unfettered air time to opponents. What does happen with increasing frequency, in my experience, is that partisan blog-site-owners espouse an especially radical position, but when discussion veers away from their agenda, instead of merely bullying the opposition, they start deleting posts, or summarily close down the discussion box. In some extreme instances, I've had perfectly reasonable posts deleted by administrators, and then "described" (mischaracterized) by the blog-owner. It's one thing to be censored; it's quite another to be libeled without even having the offending evidence presented.